You may have noticed that I have been trying hard not to write about Syria.
The truth is, there are some things about which there is nothing that can be said.
About two and a half years ago, someone in Syria, we know not who, tired of having their prospects permanently constrained by a regime increasingly out of touch with the aspirations of its people, as most governments of the world now are, stood up peacefully to protest. Others followed suit in other places: Homs, Aleppo, Latakia – Damascus. These ancient names have since become part of the gazetteer of human insanity.
Fearing the Arab Spring movement had arrived in its streets and squares, a progressive force for democratic change that had already led to the downfall of other regimes in the region, the military responded by putting snipers on the rooftops to shoot dead unarmed civilians, claiming that violent agitators were firing on their peaceful soldiers; the oldest excuse. Reformers, students and even the young children of suspected activists began disappearing into secret police torture cells, their mutilated corpses turning up on garbage dumps.
As the dead and disappeared mounted into the tens of thousands, the protesters armed themselves as best they could and began to fight back.
They soon gained the moral and financial support of Saudi Arabia (they were mostly the Sunni muslim majority), but were opposed by the militant Shi’ite state of Iran on the side of the ruling minority Alawite community – which, confusingly, had previously guaranteed freedom of worship, even for the Christians. Demands for freedom and democracy forgotten, a proxy religious war broke out to advance the two sides’ competition for regional hegemony.
No-one came to try to stop it; if only because previous interventions in Arab Spring uprisings and the invasions of Iraq had proved complicated and ultimately unsuccessful; because Middle Eastern crises are notoriously intractable; and because US global power has begun to retrench.
Fighting spread quickly from city to city. At first the regime was forced onto the back foot, until their superior firepower and willingness to inflict the maximum violence indiscriminately on the civilian population began to tell against the rebels, who were now being reinforced by increasingly disturbing. self-interested militias.
Today, an asymmetrical, polygonal civil war is raging in Syria, that threatens to engulf the region.
As once before, so the regime, embodied in the underlying weakness of the Assad dynasty, has been prepared to lay the entire country in ruins and, if necessary, set the Middle East on fire to preserve its minority powerbase. One hundred and twenty thousand people have already died, over half of them non-combatants, to keep one polite, diffident, somewhat colourless, softly spoken, British-trained eye-doctor in power; while his half-British wife continues to shop at Harrods. Questions are being asked, quietly at first, about who is really promoting the war? Suggestions are emerging that it is Assad’s psychotic brother Maher who is really behind the atrocities. Mental illness runs in the family.
Whoever is masterminding the repression, Syria must be counted a failed state. As another brutal winter approaches, up to six million internally displaced persons are pleading for a billion dollars a month in international aid, but not getting it. Giving-fatigue has set in: besides, we do not know who we might be giving to. Smaller neighbouring states are being overwhelmed. A Syrian refugee camp is now the fourth largest city in Jordan. Twenty per cent of the population of Lebanon are Syrian refugees.
Meanwhile, cities are pulverised by heavy artillery and aerial bombardment, civilians trapped like rats in rebel-held suburban ruins gassed with chemical weapons and dying from shortage of medical supplies. People who visited Syria before the war used to comment on what a civilised country it was, how hospitable its people.
But the conflict doesn’t stop at Syria’s gerrymandered colonial borders. Wracked by car bombings, neighbouring Lebanon threatens to splinter into its former internal chaos. Israel’s sworn enemy, Hezbollah is resurgent; intervening paradoxically on the side of Assad, the man who formerly co-guaranteed Arab peace with Israel. Irreparably wounded by violent, half-baked Bush-family interventions over the past two decades, Iraq too is on the verge of disintegration. Hundreds outside Syria are dying daily.
For, the vectors of the war have spread beyond the initial cause to include religious schism, political and criminal factionalism, unresolved issues from Syria’s colonial past. Murderous bands of fighters led by warlords and medieval village mullahs projecting their imagined caliphate across sectarian faultlines and state boundaries are weighing-in from all around the region and from further abroad. Internationally proscribed jihadist groups such as al-Nusra and al-Qaeda are openly competing for prestige and power. In Afghanistan, the Taleban takes comfort in murdering middle-aged Indian lady novelists.
Yet unfortunately for us in the West, with our decent instincts, these appalling militias are mostly on the side of the rebels: the ‘good’ side, as we would love to see it. Ironically, it is the pro-western, religiously tolerant, secular, modernising, consumerist regime that has been shooting, gassing and butchering its own people. It is the disturbingly normal-seeming Assad family which stands against the terrorist groups we most fear, with whom we are distastefully trying to avoid aligning ourselves. We are covertly supporting the ‘good’ rebels in the forlorn hope of toppling a ‘bad’ regime that (like all the others) we first put in power, but which has now become a grave embarrassment to us.
And the baddies on both sides are winning.
Only the innocent victims are on the side of the angels, and they have no voice; no clear leadership. It is no longer possible, in short, to determine what parties there may be in the conflict with whom one could safely map the road of peace, to broker a ceasefire followed by a political settlement — even if there were any parties outside the conflict with the willingness and strength of purpose to do it.
Only an economically resurgent Turkey has tried; but its president Erdogan has his own internal problems, with popular protest growing against his increasingly autocratic imposition of Islamic authority on a state where, as in Egypt, a popular army has traditionally held the balance of power through guaranteeing religious freedoms under a secular establishment. Egypt, too, has come close to the edge of darkness in the aftermath of the Arab Spring — we have seen what ‘popular’ armies can do — but that’s another story.
You see, there are no moral certainties in this tale.
America’s chronic failing is always to choose sides. Vietnam, Colombia, Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan – it has become easier to fall into war, always in support of corporatist interests, than to set out in friendship to broker peace. So much for Christianity. The futile calculus of punitive sanctions, limited engagement, surgical strikes has created the misleading impression that all conflicts can be resolved with an expensive display of irresistible might, a lethal PowerPoint presentation, rather than patient diplomacy embarked on in good time. The sword is always mightier than the pen; the stick more persuasive than the carrot.
We know this delusionary interventionist doctrine is not going to work in Syria. In such a muddled-up conflict there are no ‘sides’ to choose between, only a seemingly infinite splintering of poorly defined interest groups. Yet shooting off a few cruise missiles and laser-guided bunker-busters is all anyone can think of either doing, or refraining from doing, ‘until there is better evidence’ of who is carrying out the worst atrocities and thus, a target to shoot at.
Is this possibly the most divisive conflict in history?
For, beyond the rival regional states urging on their proxies in Syria, beyond the jihadi groups, the warring parties are also supported by the old world’s major powers: Russia, China, America, Britain, France, belligerently squaring-up to one another like ageing movie stars in a triangular game of chicken.
Their revanchist postures are designed to impress wavering voters at home, whilst cementing dubious regional economic alliances based mainly on the lucrative trade in ever-more lethal weaponry — and, of course, oil. Vehemently opposing one anothers’ policies on the war, they have stupidly lost all sense of danger. Yet, at the same time, their elected representatives and the voters at home are at odds with the leadership, further layers of division rippling outwards and downwards.
But how are we managing to tell who is killing whom?
Owing to early difficulties for Western journalists obtaining entry visas (and, frankly, the real dangers attending on penetrating the war zones), much of the information coming out of Syria has been generated by citizen-media. Numerous video clips shot on mobile phones give their own desperate impression of what is happening. Some, much or all of this coverage may be, or appears to be, propagandistic in nature; even faked. Much, too, may be genuine: we simply do not know. We are not much interested in finding out.
So there is plentiful seeming evidence of nerve gas attacks being carried out by the regime. The problem is, we just can’t smell it. Actors can twitch and foam at the mouth, just as well as genuine casualties. Blame can logically only be laid at the door of the army, that has the means of delivery and known stockpiles of chemical weapons (sold to them by British companies with legitimate export licences), as Obama has said. It seems unlikely that the rebels would deliberately gas themselves and their own families, just to bring America into the war.
But, as Russia’s Putin has argued, it is not logical either that the regime would use such weapons when they are already winning the war, when they have been threatened with punitive reprisals if they cross the ‘red line’ of international disapproval; and when UN chemical warfare monitors are there on the ground, only minutes away in their city-centre hotel.
There appears then to be no way of knowing exactly what happed to kill 1,029 men, women and 400 children in a rebel-held area of Damascus in August, 2013.
Doctors working with Medecins Sans Frontieres report treating almost 4,000 casualties of what they believe was the nerve agent, Sarin. Do they not know their business? Obama, convinced, has responded by calling for retaliatory strikes against the regime, to demonstrate international disapproval of the use of chemical weapons, the crossing of the so-called ‘red line’. He simply cannot resist the siren call to arms, although he is having a torrid time trying to impress his views on an isolationist Congress minded to oppose anything the president wants; and is vehemently challenged by Putin, for reasons best known to the Russian president.
Everyone apparently but the leaders of the wobbly Western alliance understands that military intervention will merely be throwing gasoline on the fire. Russia has threatened to resupply Assad with S300 ground-to-air missiles, and even send them to Iran. Russian and American warships are circling around one another in the eastern Mediterranean. British and American bases on Cyprus are vulnerable to retaliatory strikes. The recent meeting of the G20 has ended without consensus, with Obama and France’s president Hollande in a minority of two.
- The voices of moderation are speaking out in Washington, London and Paris, even in St Petersburg – but are they listened to?
- The UN is powerless to intervene: the Security Council is so deadlocked, it will not even debate the issue. The warring powers are the UN.
- The situation, in short, is out of control. No-one knows how to stop it, or where it will end.
The war in Syria may burn itself out, or drag on, out of the headlines, for years. History suggests a probable other course of events:
it starts with a global failure of leadership, moral vacuum, the chronic irresolution of institutions in which cynical politicians and their underpaid publics have lost faith, complex treaty alliances, historic territorial claims, a financial crash, recession, a glut of unemployed young men, the inflating economic importance of rival arms industries, a revival of nationalism — peace-weariness.
Those were the primary ingredients from which the two major wars of the twentieth century were fashioned, requiring only a suitable flashpoint. [Addendum: since the spring of 2014 the West has become aware of a criminal Jihadi movement known as ISIL, or IS – Islamic State. Funded by Qatar, possibly invented by the CIA, the predominantly Sunni ISIL has made astonishing military gains and is now opposed by an enfeebled Iraqi adminstration, a failed Iraqi army and a Western coalition that, with astonishing stupidity, refuses to become involved on the ground. The fall of Baghdad is imminent.]
When Iran and Israel get dragged in to the Syrian conflict, as the situation dictates they soon must, unless Russia and China blink first we shall be irrevocably locked into the first global conflagration of the twenty-first century. Perhaps all that is keeping us from one anothers’ throats is simply that, after seven decades of relative peace, Eurovision and shopping, we are none of us prepared for all-out war.
That can change, literally in a flash.
So, don’t ask me to write anything about Syria. The word ‘insanity’ has been redacted from the lexicon. There is nothing at all to be said.