How the Syrian People became a victim of Post-Imperial Russian Pride

By Ian Howarth

As I sit here and write confirmation has come from the French Foreign Ministry that the Syrian Regime of Bashar al- Assad has used Sarin against its own people in its desperate fight for survival.

syria opposition flagThe story of the two year battle for Syrian freedom and self- determination is one that is rife with tragedy and hypocrisy.   The response of the Western Powers towards the rebellion in Libya played its part in galvanising the oppressed and un-represented youth and middle class of Syria to stand and resist the hereditary tyranny of their government.  However, in doing so and looking to the West for aid they received only kind words and a sense of abandonment as the forces of Realpolitik took over in the corridors of the Foreign Ministries and Intelligence Services of the Western Powers.  Bordering Israel, Turkey, Lebanon and Iran with the regime supported by Hezbollah and Russia it was never going to be a case of a quick Allied air campaign followed by jubilant scenes of victorious rebels in Damascus pulling down posters of the despised Dictator.

This has been and will continue to be a long and bloody battle that will see both sides move further and further to extremes and in the process of doing so the secular free republic initially sought by the first rebellions will be lost amongst the massacres and bloodletting that will be increasingly done in the name and by the hand of the forces of Islamism.  With protests breaking out in Turkey this past week as well the whole bloody mess has the potential to grow and spread.  Already Iran with its Hezbollah puppet is fighting a proxy war in the streets of Syria against the Western backed rebels.  The added potential of Russian advanced weaponry on their side and the recent lifting of the EU weapons embargo means that a situation that was already burning out of control could be about to be stoked to new heights of depravity and destruction.

It is important that I clarify something here.  I am in no doubt as to which side of this conflict I am on.  That is the side of freedom, liberty, and secularism and so that is the side of the Rebel Syrian Army, and its leaders.  However, I am not fooled into believing that all those on that side would recognise the description I have just given it.  It is clear that many in this movement represent the very opposite of the ideals I have just attributed to it. Increasingly the movement against Assad is Islamist in nature and as such a great threat to these ideals.  I will also be clear in my meaning of Islamist, it is not anti-Muslim, but specifically a brand of extreme political ideology that finds its closest comparison in Fascism.  In fact commentators such as Stephen Schwartz and the late Christopher Hitchens have used the term Islamofascism as a way of clarifying a more familiar political ideology wrapped in a quasi-religious wrapper and so that is the term I will adopt here.

The plans of the French, British and Americans to arm the seriously out gunned rebels in Syria seem on the surface to be a good idea. However, how do we ensure that these weapons stay with the rebels we like?  It is worth looking to Afghanistan and to a lesser extent Libya to see that when you start sending weapons into a conflict zone they very soon find their way into the hands of all and anyone engaged in that conflict.  With the fact that we could see a return to the Cold War with Russia arming one side and the United States the other we are in a further danger of internationalising this conflict.  However, with that said in truth it’s already internationalised in the favour of the Assad regime.  Hezbollah is in Syria funded and directed by Iran, and Russian tanks, helicopters and fighter aircraft are being used against the rebels, with the prospect of more Russian weaponry being supplied still.   In the last few days the Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that the contract to supply advanced S-300 Surface to Air missiles had not yet been fulfilled and Russia did not want to “disturb the balance in the region”.  This does not however alleviate the already considerable Russian military equipment engaged in the conflict or the diplomatic and political cover that they are providing the Assad dictatorship.

While the Great Powers stand off against each other over the future of Syria all the while the situation on the ground deteriorates further.  Terrible brutality has been unleashed by both sides for sure, but the heavy weaponry and foreign aid that the Assad regime is receiving means that on the whole it is they that are responsible for the most consistent and worse abuses of human rights.  The extremity of this sort of violence only leads to more extreme political reactions and the strengthening of the forces of intolerance in this conflict.  This is a vicious circle that we have seen unleashed time and again since the end of the Cold War (and across the centuries), in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan and now in Syria.  The threat of the opposition becoming entirely controlled and directed by Islamofascist forces is a real one.  It would seem though that with the Western Allies of the Syrian Opposition either unwilling or unable to bring a decisive blow to the favour of their cause we are doomed to watch this bloody civil war continue to roll on and on strengthening the very forces that it is neither in the interests of Russia or the West to see strengthened, let alone the Syrian people themselves.

If it were the case that Islamofascist’s were to win the day in Syria this would be both a tragedy for those brave souls who first stood up against the vile regime that has imprisoned that proud nation for the past 40 years, many of whom paid with their lives for this defiance; and for Democracy and the nations of the democratic world.  In an Islamofascist Syria we would have a new home for the terrorism and the breeding of doctrines of hate against the plural secular societies of which as a Briton I am proud to be a part. With Russia facing its own problems with the forces of Islamofascism in the Caucasus it seems that Russian Foreign Policy has become detached from the preservation of its own national self-interest and caught up in a pathetic flexing of post imperial power in the defence of an old ally for the sake of Russian pride.  While superficially understandable that Russia would wish to preserve its perceived sphere of influence in the Middle East and more precisely its lucrative arms contracts with the Assad regime.   Russia is failing to acknowledge the bigger picture and wider implications that the further continuation of this bloody conflict would inevitably lead too.

This is all as yet speculation, and fear for the future.  There is still a chance that the liberal forces that unleashed the initial opposition in Syria could yet triumph and let us not underestimate the Syrian people themselves.  They are an educated and informed people, connected too and interested in maintaining these connections with the rest of the world.  Many have studied in Universities in Britain, France and the USA.  They watched with horror the terrors that were unleashed in their neighbour Iraq and do not wish the same sectarianism for their nation.  However, it cannot be stressed that the tide of history tends to pass over the quiet liberals and in the face of unrestrained brutality it becomes harder and harder to stand for plurality.  I hold out a glimmer of hope for a free and secular Syria even today, that the mandarins of the Russian Foreign Ministry will wake up and realise the stupidity of their own position and that an effective and united international effort to bring an end to the Assad regime can be mounted.   However after two long and brutal years this glimmer grows dimmer with each passing day.

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