Let’s stop saying that the west could have done more to end the war in Syria. That sounds far too much like an accusation of simple complacency, when the reality is the west has done far more to prolong and intensify the war in Syria, than can ever be justified by any rational means.
In its determination to bring about regime change in Syria, the west has armed jihadists, ignored genuine support for the secular Assad regime, assisted in uniting rebel groups against the Assad regime and painted Islamist militants as “moderates” to justify its continued support for their uprising.
Don’t get me wrong – I am in no way claiming that the Assad regime is a perfect example of democracy, but Syria is currently a secular country and the “rebels” attempting to overthrow the regime, with very few exceptions, wish to replace that regime with an Islamist regime operating Sharia law. So how can we in the West, with our supposed belief in democracy and liberal values, support these rebels in their goals?
It is true that in the early days of the conflict, there were numerous opposition groups, not all of whom wanted to implement Islamist rule – the Free Syrian Army, at the time, was considered relatively moderate in its approach and contained members who wanted Syria to remain a secular society. But too many opposition groups, fighting for separate causes, were never going to defeat Assad, so we in the west encouraged the opposition groups to unite. In the process, the Free Syrian Army effectively disbanded, with the more radical members joining ISIS and Al Nusra, and the more moderate members retiring to “drink coffee in Istanbul” (Robert Fisk, British Middle East correspondent, quoted on Australian television in November 2014). While our media continues to paint the Free Syrian Army as moderates, the reality is those who still identify themselves as FSA members are actually staunch Islamists intent on bringing about Sharia law.
Other key opposition groups – Ahrar al-Sham, Nour al-din al-Zenki and the Al Nusra front – are similarly intent on implementing Islamist law in Syria and have been accused of horrendous atrocities against civilians in their attempts to overthrow the Assad regime. Why does the West find it so hard to believe that the majority of Syrians, used to living under secular rule, would view these groups as terrorist organisations and would welcome their overthrow by the Assad regime and Russia? Why are our mainstream media still so reluctant to admit that the liberation of Aleppo, if nothing else, is a positive step for ordinary Syrian residents who, according to recent accounts posted on social media and independent news sites, have been held hostage by these terrorists for so long?
The West could be doing much more to help Syria at the moment – starting with admitting that it was wrong to arm the rebels, and instead joining forces with Assad and Russia in defeating the remaining rebel forces in the rest of the country. But of course, we can’t do that, can we? Because apart from our distinct lack of appetite for war – bombing raids carry too much risk of civilian casualties, and troops on the ground carry too great a risk of casualties to our own troops – the simple act of supporting Assad would seriously piss off Saudi Arabia and the United States. These are two of our greatest trading partners, both of whom desperately want the Assad regime defeated at all costs.
Simply put, what started in 2011 as a fairly moderate civil uprising against the autocracy of the Assad regime, has been quickly and cynically exploited by Saudi Arabia and the United States for their own means. This is no longer about the Syrian people – it is a power struggle between Russia, who wish to keep Assad in power, and Saudi Arabia, the US and their allies who wish to topple Assad at all costs. As to why Saudi Arabia, the US and the western allies are so intent on toppling Assad – well, for Saudi Arabia it’s primarily about competition in the oil and gas industries; Saudi Arabia wishes to establish a pipeline via Syria in order to flood Europe with cheap oil and so weaken Russia. The fact that the majority of the opposition groups in Syria are Islamist, is a bonus to Saudi Arabia – establishing an Islamist regime in Syria would potentially enable far greater dominance of the middle east than Saudi Arabia enjoys currently.
The US is, of course, fully supportive of any strategy that will weaken Russia, which it has always seen as a threat to its own political dominance, so is happy to support Saudi Arabia in overthrowing Assad. This leaves the UK and other EU member states to either back the Saudi / US alliance or stay completely out of the conflict – under no circumstances can they provide support to Assad. And given the UK and EU are equally keen to see Russia weakened, they are happy to back the Saudis.
Needless to say, this is a very simplistic explanation of our involvement in the crisis and takes no account of the very complicated sectarian and ideological disputes within Syria, which would have continued despite our involvement. In the words of Billy Joel – “We didn’t start the fire”. But we sure as hell have been fanning the flames.
Sources / background:
Wikipedia – for general background on Free Syrian Army, Ahrar al-Sham, Nour al-din al-Zenki and Al Nusra Front