Is the Syrian regime hellbent on political suicide? There can be no doubt that he is determined to crush any resistance, but if President Bashar al-Assad had really started a massacre in the city of Homs (as was reported by most of the western media) it would have been an act of complete madness. And though he may be ruthless, Assad is no madman. So what’s really going on? Well, the truth about the situation in Syria is that, as in Libya, there is much more to it than the simple narrative we’re all fed: pro-democracy activists fighting a hated tyrant. The Russians, at least, understand that much.
William Hague has been deploring the Russian and Chinese veto of the proposed UN resolution against Syria, but a close look at the Russians’ reservations reveals some legitimate concerns. The rebel army in Syria captured 19 government soldiers in Homs, where they had set up a base. Was it honestly realistic to demand, as the UN did, that the Syrian army at that point withdraw to its barracks, leaving its soldiers captive? As far as Assad was concerned, insurgents had captured his sovereign territory; was it reasonable to expect him to step down?
There has been much talk of the Syrian army having committed the worst massacre since Assad’s father ordered the slaughter of up to 30,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982. But soon after China and Russia’s veto, the figure for those killed in Homs was reduced from 200 to 55 by one of the opposition groups (although others insisted more were killed). Homs then came under renewed military bombardment, and yes, dozens have been killed, which is sickening news to be sure, but sadly nothing out of what has passed for the ordinary in Syria for the past year. However, this idea of ‘a massacre’ went viral. It was a ‘crime against humanity’ and ‘its perpetrators must answer for it’, said Alain Juppé, foreign minister of France (and the prime architect of the Libya invasion).
The West seems as keen as ever to see the uprisings as a simple story of freedom fighters opposing tyranny, when the situation is clearly much more complex. There seems to be an awful repeat of the Libya debacle beginning to unfold: western correspondents embed themselves with self-declared former al-Qa’eda fighters and bands of tribal fanatics, but fail to report these details so as not to undermine the ‘Arab Spring’. The result of this in Libya is plain to see. Once the Islamist militias had established their rule in Tripoli, they imposed sharia law on a once secular country and set about torturing their former enemies — or anyone who happened to be black — in a way that would have put even Gaddafi to shame.
Now the same voices that helped the Islamists take over Libya — and then feigned surprise when they introduced a new, perhaps even worse type of despotism — are calling for yet another armed revolution in Syria. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that, should their insurrection succeed, the new regime might cause untold suffering for the Syrian people, most of whom (it is not often reported) have not joined the uprising. Why would they? They have plenty of justification for fearing that what will come after Assad could prove far more repressive culturally, and potentially murderous. The Nato-sponsored government-in-exile, the Syrian National Council, is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The ranks of the Free Syrian Army have been swelled by radical Islamists from as far afield as Iraq and Libya, who are being armed and funded by Qatar via Lebanon and Turkey. The Emir of Qatar, darling of the West, has at least had the decency to make his own intentions in this crystal clear: he wishes to overthrow the last secular Arab regime. The Emir recently renamed the tiny island’s main mosque after Mohammed ibn Abul Wahhab, founder of the insane Wahhabi cult that hijacked this so-called Arab Spring at the outset. He has installed its proxies in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, and aims to do the same in Syria.
The House of Saud cares nothing for ordinary Syrians — its interest in the fight is purely strategic. Along with its undeclared ally Israel, it too would like to see a group of Sunni, Wahhabi despots, hostile to their common enemy Tehran, replace Assad, who has collaborated with Iran’s ayatollahs.
This would make life easier for many western countries, which fear a nuclear-armed Iran above all else. The foreign policy wonks’ line about Syria is not idealistic but pragmatic: while the Wahhabis may be cuckoo, they are the perfect allies when it comes to containing Iran. Islamists are coming to power throughout the region, so we may as well back some biddable ones, so the thinking goes, especially as they are all conveniently turning out to be proxies of our Nato allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
But what of Syria’s religious minorities, the moderate Alawites; the Christians and the Shia? What of its women? What of the ever-dwindling number of free-thinking intellectuals, its ordinary moderate Muslim ‘folks’, in Obamaian parlance, who do not wish to live under a backward Wahhabi theocracy? They can suffer in silence, it seems. American and Israeli ‘security interests’ must come first, and are best served by a pact with the devil.
Of course, Russia and China’s veto at the UN had nothing to do with concerns about human rights. For China, it was revenge for being duped by Nato after the UN sanctioned a no-fly zone over Libya strictly to protect civilians but which was used as an excuse for all-out war and subsequently to ensure that China no longer had access to the country’s vast oil reserves. Russia has extensive economic investments in Syria, whose main port is leased to the Russian Navy; and it sells billions of dollars of arms to the Assad regime.
But we sell many billions more to Saudi Arabia, which is Britain’s main trading partner. We installed the Al-Saud dynasty back in the 1920s, and we’ll continue to be silent, as we always have been, on that country’s repulsive human rights record. What goes around certainly comes around in the Middle East, and it comes around with a depressing regularity. The Arab Spring was never going to end the cycle.
John R. Bradley is the author of After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts (Palgrave Macmillan).
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 11, 2012