The West never had any problem with Bashar al-Asad as long as he did their bidding. Following the “Arab Spring”, the West thought Asad was a low hanging fruit ripe for picking. Three years later, they are waking up to reality.
Thanks to the intense international news focus on current events in Syria, no one can be unaware of the increasingly bloody internal conflict in that country, which is arguably reaching the level of civil war. But the level of coverage can have, ironically, the effect of distorting and diminishing people’s understanding of issues rather than increasing it. In this column, I would like to focus on some little noted elements of the situation there.
Because of the context of the so-called “Arab Spring,” with the political changes that it has brought in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, and the recent example of the toppling of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, the problems in Syria have come to be seen entirely in terms of a popular uprising against a dictatorial regime, and the brutal response of that regime. That is undoubtedly the key dynamic at the heart of the conflict. Bashar al-Asad’s Ba‘thist regime has long been recognised as among the most brutal and repressive of Arabian dictatorships, which is why Western regimes have been so grateful for his assistance in their war on Islamic movements over the last decades, with numerous Islamic activists having been sent to Syrian prisons from western countries for interrogation and worse. There is clearly a substantial domestic opposition to Ba‘thist rule that is underpinning the current uprising, and the brutality and ruthlessness of the regime’s response is no great surprise. Nothing in this article should be taken as either endorsing al-Asad’s regime and its brutality, or minimising the suffering of the Syrian people, now and in the past.
However, seeing the Syrian situation in only those terms is to misrepresent it and play into the hands of the Western powers seeking to exploit it for their own purposes. Bashar al-Asad has long played a double game: dealing with the West on issues such as fighting al-Qaeda-style Islamic movements, while also maintaining links with Iran and Islamic movements such as Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine for his own reasons, principally linked to Syria’s geopolitical interests vis-à-vis Israel. As a result, some have characterised al-Asad’s regime as a “resistance regime,” alongside those Islamic movements. That characterisation is wide of the mark, for al-Asad never had used idealist or ideological reasons for pursuing such policies; it has always been a matter of self-interest, much as Saddam Hussein sometimes cultivated contacts with Islamic movements in other Arabian countries. Nonetheless, Iran and the other Islamic movements found it necessary to maintain relations with al-Asad because of the advantages of having a state ally in the Arab world, and the strategic depth Syria offered to movements in Lebanon and Palestine — a facility that no other Arabian state was or is willing to provide, despite their supposed solidarity with the victims of Israeli aggression and expansionism.
None of this is news to the Americans and their allies, of course. They might base their eagerness to support the anti-regime movement in Syria on al-Asad’s brutality, but the reality is that they have long been willing to deal with both Syria and numerous other equally unpleasant Arabian regimes. More relevant is the fact that Syria has long been regarded, understandably and correctly, as the weak link in resistance to US-Israeli policy in the region, precisely because its posturing has always been for political advantage rather than principle. In 2007, when it emerged that Israel had bombed a building in Syria on the dubious claim that it housed a North Korean provided nuclear plant (a claim now treated as fact, despite the total absence of any supporting evidence), Crescent International pointed out that “Hawks in the US have long argued that Syria is an easier target than Iran, [one] they can attack at any time in order to put pressure on both Iran and the Hizbullah.” The phrase often used at the time was that Syria represented “low-hanging fruit” — that is, fruit that would be easy to pick. This is what we are seeing now in the international community’s determination that al-Asad must fall, effectively preventing any political solution to the problem in Syria and leaving al-Asad with no option but the brutal repression of the opposition that we are now seeing. That is not to minimise his responsibility for that brutality, of course, but the fact is that it was both predictable and probably avoidable if al-Asad had not been backed into a corner and the opposition to him not been encouraged to take confrontational rather than conciliatory positions.
This international pressure on Syria must be understood in the context of both the US-Israeli pressure on Iran, which is also intensifying by the day, and the build-up to US elections due to take place at the end of the year. Given the US’s economic problems, the Obama team must know that their best hope of success — the weakness of the Republicans notwithstanding — is to be able to trumpet foreign policy successes to contrast with the previous Republican administration’s disaster in Iraq. For all the rhetoric and political pressure targeted at Iran, it is unlikely that any substantial action can be taken against such a powerful and popular state. However, the fall of al-Asad, portrayed as a key ally of Iran, could be presented as a major blow against Iran, without the complications of engaging in another major Middle Eastern conflict.
Two other considerations must make the Syrian policy all the more attractive to the Obama administration: first, given the American people’s war fatigue, the fact that it can by pursued by proxy, through local opposition forces and subservient allies such as the EU and the Arab League; and second, the fact that it keeps Israel happy at a time when the support of Israel and the Jewish lobby in America is crucial for all candidates.
The Obama administration must sincerely hope, therefore, that the toppling of al-Asad, along with that of Qaddafi last October, would be sufficient to distract attention from the ongoing problems in Afghanistan and secure them another four years in the White House. As so often before, American politicians are buying their interests with the blood and suffering of people elsewhere; and yet again, the victims are Muslim, as has become the norm in recent years.