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Intervention in Syria
Would Fatally Destabilize the Region
by K. Gajendra Singh Bookmark and Share


In his Opinion column on Syria in Hindu of 19 November, 2011 Chinmay Gharekhan, explained the underlying complexity of what is going on in Syria. However, when it comes to overt and covert interference from the outside, he has pulled punches. A former diplomat, with long experience of working with the United Nation and still connected with the establishment, he was once posted in Damascus during 1960-70. (The author visited Syria a few times while posted at Amman; 1989-92)

But even a very restrained Chinmay , while eschewing open British interference and support from Washington, lets slip in this reality check for Syria’s enemies inside and outside;


”If there is a breach in the ranks of the army and parts of it openly engage in anti-regime violence, the regime can be expected to fight back with full ferocity. It could well be a case of ‘you-ain't-seen-nothing-so-far.'

Let me recall that in the 1982 Islamic uprising by the Moslem Brotherhood (MB) in Hama in Syria when scores of Alawite military officers/cadets and Baath party officials were killed, Bashar’s uncle Rifaat sent to ‘defuse’ the situation and teach a lesson to the MB reportedly killed twenty to thirty thousand of regime’s enemies in Hama and the area of uprising was razed to the ground. Nearly 1000 government troops were also killed .Thus emerged the phrase Hama Rule; “Rule or die” (there is no half way)

One just has to listen to the statements of Western leaders and lies by their corporate media to easily comprehend that like Iraq and Libya, it is a blatant attempt at regime change in Syria, this time around, the stakes would be higher –a Shia-Sunni divide and terrible confrontation. The West seems to be succeeding with Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar (as in Libya), Sunni Islamist Turkey and Jordan among others ranged on one side and Alawite forces in Syria, their Christian and many Sunni supporters, along with Shia dominated Lebanon and Shia Iran. Lebanon and Syria are Tehran’s allies. The Shias controlling Baghdad (courtesy US invasion) abstained on the Arab League resolution against Damascus.

The  reaction of so called ‘international community‘ which Western corporate media keeps on drumming up is basically composed of Washington and London, but this time includes Paris too, former colonial rulers of Syria ,which are active overtly and covertly. Russia’s strategic interests are seriously threatened, since its naval ships can now dock only at the Syrian ports after Libya was invaded and taken over by western powers and its proxies. Iran also uses Syria’s naval facilities. After the Arab revolt against US puppet Hosni Mubarak, Iranian ships can now use the Suez Canal for the first time since 1978.

Russia and China realizing how UN resolution 1973 on Libya was abused , misused and distorted by NATO and Europe and its Arab allies, have warned that an overreaction could pave the way for a military intervention.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov stressed. 

“We suggest that in order to put the Arab League initiative in place all countries concerned with a peaceful outcome of developments in Syria should demand not only from the Syrian authorities, but also from the opposition that they stop their violence,”  Lavrov warned that  “The ongoing attacks on government buildings in Syria look like a civil war.”

It may be recalled that following the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Washington tried to establish its total domination in central Asia and east Europe in spite of promises to the contrary to Moscow. But after the 2003 illegal invasion of Iraq, the new Russian leader president Vladimir Putin undertook measures to reassert Russian influence in Middle East. After the visit by Bashar Assad to Moscow in early 2005 Russia wrote off 73% of US $13.4 billion in debt owed by Syria from the days of the USSR and started supplying new weapons including latest missiles to Syria, to re-establish old defense partnership and to protect Damascus, where the presidential Palace was arrogantly buzzed by Israeli jets at will. This, Putin declared created "opportunities for long-term cooperation". Assad said that Moscow was invited to the region because "Russia has an enormous role, and has a lot of respect from Third World countries ... which really hope that Russia will try to revive the positions it used to hold".

Background and Seeds of Disputes in the Middle East

Let me give some background on the seeds of dispute in the Tigris and Euphrates basin, where originated many ancient civilizations but it has a history of turbulence and wars. After the armies of Islam carved an empire from the Atlantic to China in the 7thCentury, the isolated Arabian Peninsula became an active component. After the Ottoman Sultan annexed the Caliphate and guardianship of Mecca and Medina in 16thcentury , the peninsula became a peaceful backwater until World War I (research will probably show that the increased influence of Sheikhs and Islam in Istanbul led to the decline of science and modern ideas in Istanbul weakening Ottoman polity and arms) Since a decade massive gifts to Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP) of prime minister Recep Erdogan and investments in the party areas has led to ascendance of Saudi yesil surmaye (green money) and Ankara has embarked on a pro Saudi policy which is likely to boom rang.

During WWI, when Turkey sided with Germany; Britain, to protect its Indian empire and its lifeline, Suez Canal, encouraged Arabs under Hashemite ruler Sharif Hussein of Hijaj to revolt against the Caliph in Istanbul (and sent spy T E Lawrence to help and mislead). The war's end did not bring freedom to the Arabs as promised; since at the same time, by secret Sykes-Picot agreement, the British and French arbitrarily divided the Sultan's Arab domains and their warring populations of Shias, Sunnis, Alawite Muslims, Druse, and Christians. The French took most of greater Syria, dividing it into Syria and Christian-dominated Lebanon. The British kept Palestine, Iraq and the rest of Arabia.

When Sharif Hussein's son Emir Feisel arrived in Damascus to claim Syria, the French chased him out. So the British installed him on the Iraqi throne. (Hashemite King and his PM Nuri al Said were killed in 1958 when the nationalist- socialist military took over) When the other son, Emir Abdullah, turned up in Amman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, dining in a Jerusalem hotel, reportedly drew on a napkin the borders of a new Emirate of Trans-Jordan, encompassing wasteland vaguely claimed by Syrians, Saudis and Iraqis.

Later, when Sharif Hussein (who wanted the Caliphate after Ataturk had abolished it) proved obdurate to British objectives, Britain let Ibn Saud and his Wahhabis hound him out of Mecca. Britain also denied Kemal Ataturk’s new Turkish republic the oil-rich Kurdish areas of Mosul and Kirkuk, now in northern Iraq. To thwart Germany posing a danger to India via the Berlin-Basra railroad, the British had earlier propped up oil-rich Kuwait, traditionally ruled by Ottoman pashas in Basra .This throttled Iraqi access to the Persian Gulf. Iraq became somewhat (though not fully!) reconciled to an independent Kuwait only in1961.

Following Britain's 1917 Balfour Declaration which had promised a homeland for Jews in Palestine, European Jews began immigrating to Palestine. The trickle became a flood with the rise of anti-Semitic policies in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in Europe.  After World War II, the state of Israel, carved out of British Palestine, was not recognized by the Arabs. The 1948 Arab-Israeli war allowed Israel to expand its territory, while Jordan annexed the West Bank and Egypt took over Gaza. In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel captured the West bank and Gaza. This is the background for most of the problems of the region.

Following the rise of Arab nationalism in the early 1950s led by Colonel Gamal Nasser of Egypt, socialists and nationalists, mostly military officers, took over the medieval kingdoms of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya - much to the consternation of Western oil companies.

As for Jordan, now anti-Assad, from its very inception, almost all its neighbors coveted it. But astute King Hussein not only survived a dozen assassination attempts, he also fended off conspiracies against his kingdom. When he died in 1999 of cancer, the kingdom had become a keystone of equilibrium in the region and a modern flourishing state, despite no oil and little other resources.

Palestinians make up 60 percent of Jordan's population. PLO militants and Palestinian army officers conspired against late King Hussein (King Abdullah, his grandfather, was assassinated in 1951 by a Palestinian), so the King expelled the Arafat-led PLO to Beirut in the early 1970s.

Before the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein had promised full support to the Palestinian cause. King Hussein maintained neutrality despite Western pressure, anger and bad-mouthing. Palestinians and their leadership had fully supported Saddam in 1990-91, and Jordan’s stand. Still the adroit King Hussein remained a major Arab player in a Middle East peace settlement and was brought from his death bed to bless the White House ceremony for the Arafat-Rabin accord.

To survive in Amman, a Hashemite ruler has to be extremely nimble. The current King Abdullah whose mother is British has been supporting the western crusade against Syria, even suggesting that Bashar resign .His rule is now propped up by massive aid from Riyadh and Washington. But there are reports of tensions between the elites in the indigenous tribal population and Palestinians, who came over after the creation of Israel and the Arab –Israeli wars.

The US stumbled into the 1991 war against Iraq without prior strategic planning. In fact, the West had supported Iraq’s long war against Khomeini's Iran, and the US had granted loans to Baghdad worth billions of dollars. Amid high tension between Kuwait and Baghdad over common oil wells, two islands, and the return of a $10 billion loan, Iraq threatened Kuwait with war. A few days before the Iraqi invasion on August 2, 1990, US Ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam Hussein that his dispute with Kuwait was a bilateral Arab affair. This was never clearly refuted by the US and Ambassador Glaspie disappeared from view. (A similar statement was issued in Washington).

By now the Western media became a handmaiden of the Western propaganda machine. All attempts to find a peaceful solution to the Iraq-Kuwait row by Arab nations, led by King Hussein of Jordan and later joined by King Hassan of Morocco, were rebuffed by the US, as was Kuwait's offer of indirect negotiations. Feelers for negotiations by the Saudis were drowned in Western cacophony. Saddam's reported offer to the UN secretary general to withdraw from Kuwait, made just before the US attack, was brushed aside. Efforts by Mikhail Gorbachev were treated with disdain. 

Post-1991 Gulf War Scene
Bush had attacked Iraq in 1991 without informing the UN secretary general; undermining the world body and further diminishing it (Bush Jr. invaded Iraq in 2003 against the will of the UN and its Charter). For the countries of the region, the war resolved nothing. Instead, the US made Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other allies pay through the nose, weakening them by an estimated $100-$150 billion. Iraq was bombed into the Middle Ages. Its enemy Iran, a member of the "Axis of Evil”, gained. To guard his back, Saddam in 1990 had agreed to the old boundary with Iran in the Shatt-al Arab waterway, disagreement over which was one of the reasons for the 1980s Iran-Iraq War.

US promises turned sour in the aftermath of the Gulf War. George Bush Sr. encouraged Iraqis, Kurds in the north and Shias in the south, to revolt. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, most of which have large Shia populations, were horrified, as a Shia state in south Iraq would strengthen Iran’s influence. The prospect of independence for Iraqi Kurds worried Turkey, whose own Kurds were fighting for freedom. The hapless Iraqi Kurds and the Shias paid a terrible price. The Iraqi Kurds and Shias remember false US promises. Both Kurdish factions in north Iraq had expressed opposition to US plans to attack Iraq.

Turkish president late Turgut Ozal, seduced by US hints of winning "lost" Kurdish areas of north Iraq, became an energetic supporter of the Bush coalition in 1990-91. He almost opened another front in the war against Iraq, but was prevented by stiff opposition from his powerful military. Currently there are simmering tensions between Turkish PM Erdogan and the Turkish Armed Forces which bodes ill for any military intervention in Syria. In its invasion of Cyprus which Ankara occupied in 1974, it did not cover itself with any glory. Yes, a Turkish brigade with instructions to fight to death in the Korean War with aim of being allowed entry fought bravely. In its war against PKK, while 40,000 people, mostly Kurds, have been killed, 5000 soldiers have also been killed.

But instead of getting oil-rich Mosul and Kirkuk, the economic sanctions against Iraq and closure of the Iraqi pipeline via Turkey cost Ankara $50 billion in lost trade.

Unemployment rose as the sanctions halted the 5,000 trucks that used to roar to and from Iraq daily, aggravating the economic and social problems in Turkey's Kurdish heartland of rebellion. A deputy prime minister once ruefully told this writer, "Mr. Ambassador, you cannot trust the Americans, not even their written promises." A sobering thought for those who support the US blindly.

PKK believes that Washington is not going after its cadre in north Iraq, not out of sympathy for PKK aims but to use it as a handle against Ankara. Most European states who 'sympathize' with PKK have used it to get concessions out of Ankara, as PKK leaders Ocalan discovered when he was forced to flee Syria in 1999.

In his recent article 'great game' in Syria for “the Guardian” Alastair Crooke wrote that the US-instigated “color" revolutions in the former Soviet republics gave way to a bloodier, and more multi-layered process but the underlying psychology remains unchanged. ” Europeans and Americans and certain Gulf states may see the Syria game as the logical successor to the supposedly successful Libya "game" in remaking the Middle East, but the very tools that are being used on their behalf are highly combustible and may yet return to haunt them - as was experienced in the wake of the 1980s "victory" in Afghanistan.”

Foreign Affairs’ journal recently noted that Saudi and its Gulf allies are “firing up" the Salafists not only to weaken Iran, but mainly in order to do what they see is necessary to survive - to disrupt and emasculate the awakenings which threaten absolute monarchism.  Salafists are being used for this end in Syria, in Libya, in Egypt (see their huge Saudi flag waving turn-out in Tahrir Square in July) in Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.

“Salafists may be generally viewed as non-political and pliable, but history is far from comforting. If you tell people often enough that they shall be the king-makers in the region and pour buckets-full of money at them, do not be surprised if they then metamorphose - yet again - into something very political and radical” warns Cooke.

There seems to be little thought about the strategic landscape – “… may yet see the prevailing calculus turned inside out: nobody knows. But does the West really believe that being tied into a model of Gulf monarchical legitimacy and conservatism in an era of popular disaffection to be a viable posture“, asks  Cooke.

Pepe Escobar of Asia Times says that the Shia-Sunni confrontation in Syria is a "strategic opportunity”, according to the powerful Israel lobby in Washington to strike against the Damascus-Tehran link; “we deal a mortal blow to Hezbollah in Lebanon.” It is really a “humanitarian" cover for a complex anti-Shia and anti-Iran operation. “A fractious, unrepresentative Syrian National Council -Libya-style - is already in place. Same for a heavily armed Sunni “insurgency" crisscrossing the borders in Lebanon and Turkey (& possibly Jordan –author). Sanctions are already essentially hurting the Syrian middle class. A relentless, international campaign of vilification of the Assad regime has been deployed. And psy ops abound, with the aim of seducing sections of the Syrian army to defect (it's not working).”

A report  by a Qatar-based researcher for the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) almost admits that the self-described "Free Syria Army" is basically a bunch of hardcore Islamists, plus a few genuine army defectors, but mostly radicalized Muslim Brotherhood bought, paid for and weaponized by the US, Israel, the Gulf monarchies and Turkey. There's nothing "pro-democracy" about this lot - as incessantly sold by Western corporate and Saudi-owned media.

Damascus did send informal ‘envoys’ to find out .Washington wants total cut off with Tehran.

Pepe concludes that the US neo-conservatives only a few years used to boast, "Real men go to Tehran". An update is "Real men go to Tehran via Damascus only if they have the balls to stare down Moscow".

It is difficult to predict the outcome of the continuing violent events in the region but it seems that the borders and boundaries drawn by Colonial powers after WWI will be redrawn after an explosion but most likely by the peoples of the region and not by the old and new imperialist centers, all bankrupt in ideas, except resorting to illegal wars and all bankrupt financially. Let Washington, London and Paris grapple with the fast economic decline at home and rising discontent against neo-liberal capitalism. The first shoe fell in September 2008; the second shoe is not far off.

Slow but Certain Descent into Chaos
Chinmaya R. Gharekhan, Opinion, Hindu November 19, 2011

Can something be done to prevent a disaster from taking place in and around Syria?

Is Syria already in the throes of a civil war? What are its implications for the region? Whither Arab Spring? What is the state of play in the Arab League? How is the great game between the Shias and the Sunnis, led by Iran and Saudi Arabia, being played out? How are India's interests affected?

All experts agree that Syria is a pivotal country in the region. Libya, during Muammar Gadhafi’s reign, pretended to assert a role for itself beyond its inherent strength. He did manage to buy a few loyal supporters in Africa with his oil money but had no ally in the Arab world. What happened in Libya will not have consequences for others in the region, particularly since the two Arab countries with which it shares borders have already experienced the ‘spring.' Syria, on the other hand, has always been one of the most significant actors in West Asia, with a dynamic, proactive approach. A destabilized Syria will seriously destabilize the neighbors, with far-reaching consequences, some of which might be palatable to some and not so to others. This explains the somewhat “hands-off “attitude of the “international community” so far because it does not know how to deal with the Syrian regime.

Unlike as in Egypt and Tunisia, the opposition in Syria has not been peaceful or non-violent, almost from the beginning. The protesters have often been well armed in the confrontation with the security forces. More than 3,000 civilians have lost their lives according to the United Nations; a large number of security personnel too, perhaps running into several hundreds, have been killed. A new and potentially ominous — ominous because it brings the country closer to a civil war — development is the defection of some members of the army and their getting organized into an effective force, called the Free Syrian Army, to attack government installations.

The Assad regime was not much worried thus far because the army and the security agencies have been fully behind it. If there is a breach in the ranks of the army and parts of it openly engage in anti-regime violence, the regime can be expected to fight back with full ferocity. It could well be a case of ‘you-ain't-seen-nothing-so-far.' The fact that Turkey, for whatever reasons, is hosting the opposition and offering it assistance not restricted to humanitarian, and Jordan, who’s King has openly called upon Mr. Assad to step down, indicates the certainty of external powers getting dragged into the civil war. One can be confident that foreign involvement will not be limited to these two countries. It should not take long for Iran and Saudi Arabia to step in for their own reasons. Lebanon, of course, will be the most adversely affected.

In the event of civil war

Should the situation develop into a full-fledged civil war, it would last a long time. The Lebanese civil war lasted 14 years. The regime will be fighting for survival — political and, crucially, physical. The majority Sunni community, led by the Muslim Brotherhood types, will seek revenge for all the atrocities suffered by them at the hands of the minority Alawite Shia government over the decades. Logic would suggest that Israel, for one, would not welcome the installation of a hard-line, Islamist regime in Damascus, not an unlikely outcome of a civil war. However, for Israel, and hence automatically for the U.S., the highest priority is Iran; if Iran is made to lose its most important ally in the region, it would be worth any price. Iran will lose not only Syria but also access to the Hezbollah in Lebanon and to the political leaders of Hamas, some of whom are reported to have moved to Egypt in recent times. The removal of the Assad regime would be a huge, even if short-term, gain for Israel.

There is one factor which just might be of help to the Assad regime. In case of a civil war, the significant Christian community will also suffer severely, precisely because of its pro-Assad orientation, which in turn is explained by the regime's secular character. Would the western powers wish to encourage such a contingency?

What we are witnessing today is Syria's slow but certain descent into chaos, a process which the world would surely wish to avoid but seems helpless. The international community will say with justification that Mr. Assad was given more than ample opportunity to introduce political and economic reforms which, he says, he has always wanted to and still does. But that was in the past. Can something be done now to prevent a disaster from taking place in and around Syria?

The West and the Arab governments, as well as Turkey, can give Mr. Assad one more opportunity. They can fix a reasonable time frame, not an absurd three or seven days' ultimatum, for him to carry out the reforms. They should at the same time — and this is important — call upon the opposition groups to stop all violence while retaining their right to stage peaceful protests. The Syrian government will definitely strike back in case of any violence anywhere in the country. So it should not be provoked or given an opportunity to justify the use of force. If, at the end of this period, credible reforms have not been implemented, there will likely be more support for sanctions on the regime. The Arab League must not get carried away by its own rhetoric or by the aggressive lobbying of some of its members. It should avoid the temptation of appearing to act tough or “principled,” and delay submitting the matter to the United Nations Security Council. Once the matter goes to the Security Council, the downhill acceleration will not be possible to stop.

The Arab League vote a few days ago —18 in favor of suspending Syria, 3 against and 1 abstention — was most revealing. Syria's own vote against is natural and Yemen's negative vote is easily explainable. Lebanon's opposition to the suspension is indicative of the domestic political set-up in the country; the Hezbollah, primarily a Shia movement, is part of the ruling coalition, with a veto-wielding share in the government. Iraq's abstention is even more significant. A government which owes so much to the U.S. has publicly adopted, in effect, a pro-Assad stance; this has a lot to do with the fact that the government in Baghdad is led by the Shia community. The Shia-Sunni tensions and the consequent Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry are very much a factor in all this drama.

Arab League action

On the other hand, the Arab League action was, no doubt, also influenced by the winds — that have become mild in recent days — that have blown over the Arab world. How can Egypt, recently liberated from an autocratic rule, not oppose an autocratic regime elsewhere?

As for the Arab Spring, the only country where it appears to have blossomed is where it all began —Tunisia. Tunisia has already had its election, in which a ‘moderate' Islamic party has gained the highest vote, not an absolute majority. In Egypt, there are question marks, although it too is heading for an election later this month. The reason for doubts regarding Egypt is that the army is a strong factor — which was not the case in Tunisia — and seems reluctant to give up its privileged position, not least in the economic sphere. It is believed by some that the reason the army did not stand by Hosni Mubarak is that he was grooming his son, a businessman and non-army man, to be his successor.

In the Security Council, the governments define their positions on political considerations, rarely on only merits of the situation. They first decide how to vote and then proceed to find a rationale. Sometimes the situation is so clear-cut that there is no room for any wiggle. Such was the case when Saddam Hussein tried to swallow Kuwait in August 1990. Today's Syrian situation is infinitely more complex.

What should India do?

If the assessment is that Syria is heading for a civil war, a case could be made for abstention, since we would not like to take sides in an internal strife. On the other hand, if the Arab League were to make a formal request for sanctions, it would be difficult for us not to support the consequent action in the Security Council. The people of India rightly want their government to exercise an ‘independent’ foreign policy, but ‘independence' should not mean merely a policy different from that of western powers. “Genuine” independence calls for an approach designed to protect and further our interests, irrespective of whom it pleases or displeases.

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