I wrote the article below in 2013 at the height of the ‘chemical weapons crisis’ which seemed to be leading towards a western military intervention in Syria against the Assad regime. I am sorry that I never posted it because a number of its predictions have since come true.
In the end Obama’s determination to keep the US out of a full scale programme of regime change in Syria survived that crisis.
WHY THE SYRIAN CONFLICT IS SO DANGEROUS FOR THE WORLD
Theme: “Dangers of the 21st Century”
The western mass media choose to portray the Syrian conflict according to its usual pantomime clichés. It is simple; an evil tyrant is slaughtering his people to stay in power against their will (Boo!). The brave freedom fighters who truly represent the ‘people’, are struggling against the odds to liberate the civilian populace from this tyrant (Hooray!). Conclusion simple; give military help to the freedom fighters to overthrow the tyrant and restore democracy and ‘normal life’.
This of course is a way of looking at things through a western historical, political and social experience. In fact it also means looking at it through a very recent perspective. Not only does the audience need to be ignorant about the differences in the political, economic and social problems in other parts of the world, but it also must have a very short memory of its own historical experience. A memory confined to the post World War I west.
Two major aspects of this conflict are being ignored in the western mass media, firstly the sectarian nature of the conflict, and secondly the way this sectarian dimension interlocks with regional powers’ foreign policy agendas and global powers’ foreign policy agendas. I mean by regional powers Qatar and some other conservative Gulf states (Sunni) versus Iran (Shia). I mean the arguably ‘global’ powers, NATO versus Russia and China.
There are too many things to say about the Syrian conflict. Here I want to focus on why it is so dangerous for the world outside Syria. That it is dangerous for Syrians themselves does not need pointing out.
The Syrian conflict has the power to play a similar role to that of the ‘Balkan Crisis’ in the genesis of World War I. The consequences could be a new ‘Cold War’ or even full-scale world war because it is a nucleus at which many disturbing currents in international relations may concentrate and come into sharp focus. At the moment it is playing out as a test of wills between certain powers.
With regard to regional powers, since the beginning of the twenty first century the Qatari royal family has increasingly been seen to be pursuing an aggressive and activist foreign policy in the region. This tiny state of less than one million people, ruled by a clique of brothers, is able to punch well above its weight because of the astronomical amounts of hard currency it has at its disposal thanks to its enormous gas wealth. The Qataris have sought, successfully, to buy power and influence wherever they have sought it. It is a state above criticism, censure or even scrutiny by the press or governments alike in the west.
No one has asked the key questions why Qatar has chosen not only to involve itself deeply in the conflicts in Libya and Syria, but even at times to be seen to be taking a leading position in responding to events in these countries. It is clear that Qatar is engaged in a region wide power struggle aimed against Iran and its allies. No one in the west has bothered to ask why. I will not seek to answer this question on this occasion.
The result in Syria is that while countries such as the US, Britain and France may debate about how much and what sort of aid to give the Syrian opposition forces, Qatar and some of its ‘friends’ have been quietly allowed to break international law by pouring arms into the Syrian conflict aiming at the overthrow of the Syrian government. The fact is that it is a serious breach of international law to arm a violent insurrection against the officially recognised government of a UN member state. This is really why the western powers have mostly refrained from formally supplying ‘lethal aid’ to the Syrian opposition. It is invidious for those powers which seek to justify their own violence in pursuit of their selfish foreign policy goals by claiming to uphold international law, to openly flout it.
Instead these NATO powers have sought to use a formula which has been tried and tested a number of times since the end of the ‘Cold War’. This is to persuade, bribe, bully or lie to members of the UN Security Council in order to get some resolution which would open the door to full scale military intervention in some country. Often the weakest resolutions have been stretched beyond breaking point by the determination of NATO to obtain by a military solution their foreign policy goals. This formula was used in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Libya. It is now looking very threadbare to states like Russia and China who have felt repeatedly hoodwinked by this strategy and have been quite frustrated by their inability to cool the NATO enthusiasm for resorting to military force.
Both Russia and China have finally ‘put their foot down’ and are no longer prepared to co-operate with this tactic. This is an issue of far reaching significance which is not just about Syria. On the contrary it is about the future balance of the world powers and trying to maintain a peaceful modus vivendi which seems to be dangerously undermined by the new western militarism.
Thus there is now great frustration on the part of the US, Britain and France who seek a military solution in Syria as in Libya. They are each independently deciding how far they want to go in breaking international law. The ‘Chemical Weapons’ issue has now been invented as a device to legitimise these policies. Of course the idea that chemical weapons are in some way worse than conventional weapons is a purely cultural and subjective view. It is the product of a culture which naively feels too comfortable about the effects of so-called conventional weapons. The truth is conventional weapons are far worse in their effects than people who think chemical weapons are ‘bad’ realise. Basically some people have become more desensitised to the idea of using conventional weapons than to the idea of using chemical weapons. Both types of weapon are equally terrible.
While Qatar and other conservative Sunni Gulf states are actively intervening in support of the opposition, the Syrian government has sought help from Hezbollah fighters, Shias backed by Iran. The activities of Hezbollah are always of interest to Israel and consequently become of interest to the USA too. At the time of writing it seems that government forces have been gaining the upper hand in the battle for Syria. The response has been for the NATO powers, citing chemical weapons use, to commit to more lethal forms of aid to the opposition. If this is successful in turning the tide again against the Assad regime, then Syria is not alone, there is a danger that the Iranian government will help more directly+, not just through a proxy like Hezbollah.
A direct Iranian intervention in support of Assad is likely to create a powerful reaction from Israel, Qatar, and the NATO powers. The dangers of escalation and the danger that as the situation for Assad becomes more critical, powers such as Russia and China may try to forestall a direct NATO involvement by getting in there first grows+.
The west has to conceive the possibility that Iran, Russia and possibly even China will not allow Assad to go down the way Qaddafi did+. The issue for the larger powers is not primarily about Syria itself, it is about how the major powers can co-exist. It is about Russia and China saying; “Take us seriously we mean what we are saying and respect our power too, before you go too far”.
+ Predictions which have since proved correct.