Thursday, August 23, 2012

Too Many Cooks: The Syrian Demise

With Syria at full boil, it’s becoming clearer who exactly will be burned once this pot finally explodes: everybody.

The Assad/Alawite regime is cooking in a stew of its own penchant for brutality, which has been folded into the cleverness of the United States and Saudi Arabia in crafting a strategy for hijacking “Arab Spring” anti-authoritarian uprisings for counterrevolutionary purposes. 

To be clear: This is not a critique based on some notion of pacifism or national purity.  Non-violent resistance is a powerful tactic that can be quite effective in broadening political support, but revolutionary movements do not have to abjure the use of force to maintain their ethical legitimacy.  It is virtually impossible to imagine a successful revolution that does not use force to defend its gains and to advance its objectives.  Nor are revolutionary movements (or besieged governments) obliged to abjure foreign support in order to maintain national legitimacy.  Whether foreign support undermines a movement’s national legitimacy depends on the political content and consequences of that support – for our purposes, whether it advances or derails the purported objective of creating a renewed national polity that radically increases the democratic power, social well-being, and fundamental rights of the people.  This, in turn, depends on whether foreign allies accept the limits of their supporting role, and refrain from taking over or directing the course of the movement they claim to support.  Seen from the outside, in the course of frantic struggle, how this is unfolding can only be a judgement call, based on what one knows about the relative power, political cohesion, and the actual consequences of past and present actions, of the various players.

Based on that kind of judgment, it seems difficult to deny, as numerous observers have pointed out, that, no matter how sincere and indigenous and democratically-inspired were the uprisings of last spring, the overwhelming power of foreign money, arms, and personnel has now transformed the Syrian conflict.  No longer a national struggle for political reform, in which foreign allies are supporting actors, the Syrian rebellion is now being produced and directed by the US (and its NATO assistants),  Saudi Arabia (and its Qatari assistants), Turkey, and Israel – all of whom are contributing their own cast and crew of covert operatives and jihadi stuntmen.  We’ve seen this show before; it is a revival of 1980s Afghanistan -- a script the Americans and Saudis cannot seem to get enough of.

This, however, is a more ambitious project.  It is a “multiple, concentric proxy war” that includes Israel and Gulf State partners. Its objective is not to “democratize” Syria, but to destroy it, as a kind of grand finale that reveals how, over the course of a year, the revolutionary momentum of the “Arab Spring” has been turned toward radically deconstructing Sykes-Picot, and reconfiguring the Arab world for the benefit of blatant new 21st-century colonialism.

Another little thing it certainly is is one more shovelful of dirt on the deeply-buried corpse of international law and the United Nations system.  Thanks to Bush and the Republican neocons, and Obama and the Democratic neocons, who call themselves humanitarian interventionists, national independence now means nothing for any country the US decides to target.

Thought experiment:  Can Russia and China call a meeting of their client states, with their friend in the region, Iran, call themselves “the international community,” declare that the undemocratic and misogynist regime of Saudi Arabia just “has to go,” put their favored armed factions of Saudi rebels on their payroll (for however long it takes), set up bases for them in Yemen where they are supplied with advance tactical weapons and Stinger missiles, and demand that the Saudi government withdraw itself from, and turn over to the rebels, whatever territory they’d like to occupy?  Is that the way the international system works now?  Or is this prerogative reserved only for the US and its self-selected allies? 

We all know the answer.  And there’s a word for it: imperialism.

It seems already safe to say that there is no good outcome for Syria in the foreseeable future. The Assad regime is undeniably undemocratic and brutal, and turned its back on many opportunities to head off this disaster. It is also secular, having maintained a stable, tolerant society for various confessional populations; it is also relatively progressive in social policy, maintaining standards of widespread social security, educational opportunity, gender equality, etc., that are admirable in its context; it is also one of the last remaining, at least nominally, frontline resistance states to Israel; it is also independent, and has not allowed its policies to be dictated by the interests of any foreign power; it is also the last bastion – compromised and corrupted, to be sure – of ostensibly secular and republican pan-Arab nationalism.  

Does anybody think the Americans, Saudis, Turks, and Israelis are pouring money, arms, and operatives, including ferocious international jihadis (urged on directly by al-Qaeda’s leader) into dismantling the Assad/Baathist regime because it is undemocratic and brutal?  Does anybody think that, of all these characteristics, that’s the fault they are trying to correct?  The Americans, for whom Assad’s brutal and undemocratic Syria provided a convenient torture partner?  The Saudis, who will take particular glee in destroying the last remnant of historic secular Arab nationalism?  Please, it’s not worth pursuing that line of questioning any further.

It’s pretty clear what Assad is doing, and pretty clear that it’s nasty.  It’s just as clear what the US and its allies are doing, and just as clear that it’s at least as nasty.  Like Saddam and Qaddafi before him, Assad is caught in what we might call the O.J. predicament: He’s guilty and he’s being framed. 

While it is, at this point, unlikely that the Assad/Baathist state can survive in any recognizable form, it is virtually impossible to imagine that its replacement will be, in the short or medium term, more secular, more socially progressive, more resistant to Israeli aggression, more independent, or more united.  It is, however, very easy to imagine that it will be no less undemocratic and brutal.  It is also virtually certain that it will be weak, divided, utterly dependent on foreign patronage, laid bare to the predations of international capital, incapable of providing any support to Palestinian resistance, and defenseless against the at-will incursions of the Israeli army and air force.  It is possible, if the Israelis have their way, that it will devolve into a collection of confessional bantustans.  And, icing on the cake, it will definitely have kissed goodbye to the Golan Heights.

And, yes, there certainly are elements of progressive, democratic-minded insurgents still in this rebellion.  It’s just hard to avoid recognizing that, by seeking salvation from powerful foreign actors, they have been overwhelmed by those actors’ destructive agendas.  We already see the ugly agenda of sectarianism, a favorite strategy of Gulf-financed jihadis, becoming increasingly paramount in the conflict.  In Syria itself, this is driving back into the arms of the regime some sectors of the population that should have been important allies in a democratic struggle.  As a Sunni shopkeeper remarked: “I wanted Assad to go because he is corrupt, … But what happened here, what they did, it scared me. It made me angry. I cannot support the murder of my neighbors in the name of change. You cannot bring democracy by killing innocent people or by burning the shrines of Shiites. Syrians don’t do that. This is the work of the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia.” This sectarianism is already spreading into Lebanon and Turkey.

As Jordanian journalist Ahmad Barqawi sees it: “Saudi and Qatari funded media went into overdrive promoting….the cancerous growth of sectarian rhetoric within the ranks of the revolution’s public base of support,” setting the stage for “the systematic deconstruction of the Syrian identity to make way for a new one where religious affiliations supersede nationalism.”  And, summing it up: “one of the most inglorious accomplishments of the Western-backed/Gulf-funded Syrian opposition is that it has - and over the course of mere months no less - managed to inflict such a colossal, irreparable damage to the Syrian people’s future prospects of having a real, homegrown and genuine uprising to bring about positive change in their own country.”

When the smoke clears from whatever no-fly-zone/protected-enclave/stinger-missile/Alawite-cleansing victory is won over Assad, progressive Syrians and other Arabs will not only be looking at the remnants of a weak, divided, and dependent nation, but also looking over a region in which, during the last nine years, three of the most highly-developed nationalist regimes have been pulverized by Western intervention, sectarianism has become rampant, and most serious Arab resistance to Israeli aggression has been swept away. Oh, and (aside from Egypt, which is another, unfinished, story) the only strong states left in the Arab world are the monarchies. Is this what they were fighting for?

The Israeli dimension in all of this merits particular attention.  Many reasonably suspected that the Israelis would be reluctant to tamper with the stability that Assad represents; he has, after all, made no provocative moves regarding the Golan Heights, and did not even respond militarily when Israel bombed the purported Syrian nuclear site. True, Israel does not appreciate Assad’s support of Hezbollah and his alliance with Iran – with the latter being particularly important given their obsession with attacking Iran.  But Assad’s fall is sure to bring an immediate disorder in Syria that could very well pose some threats to Israel.  The jihadis coming into Syria are not going to ignore the prime target next door.

It is highly unlikely that the United States would have embraced responsibility for such a radically destabilizing campaign to take down Assad without assuring Israel that it would not only be indemnified from any harm, but would see a net benefit from the outcome. It is also highly unlikely that Israel would have accepted any such assurance that did not allow it to be a direct, if silent, partner in the project, and to have a free hand in post-Assad Syria.  This would mean that the US has already assured Israel that it will make no objection to any future Israeli incursions into Syria to deal with whatever “threats” Israel perceives.  The point of that last sentence bears repeating: the US already has an understanding with Israel that post-Assad Syria will be a new Lebanon-like plaything (see “Lebanonization” below). If true, this should certainly give pause to anyone who would like to characterize American actions in Syria as some kind of progressive humanitarian intervention.  As disturbing as that conclusion is, given what we know about Israel and its very, very special relationship with the United States, it seems to me impossible to think that it cannot be true.  Unless, of course, you just don’t think about it.

The introduction of the infamous “chemical weapons” in this narrative is a red herring for advancing this American-Israeli agreement under distraction.  As the story goes, these weapons are just so dangerous that they can’t be trusted to either Assad or any new government (run by the folks to whom we trusted a bunch of Stingers).  The dénouement has already been announced: Either Israel or the United States will just have to go in and swoop them up – the minute, or the minute before, Assad falls.  Indeed, Obama has already threatened direct US military intervention if Assad even moves them.  The pretext is, or should be, obvious: If Israel or the US invades a rebellion-weakened Syria, it won’t be to destroy chemical weapons, but to destroy the Syrian army tout court, and eliminate the Syrian state’s ability to provide any significant resistance to future Israeli or American attacks, or any significant material support to other targets, like Iran, Hezbollah, or Palestinian resistance groups.  This means destroying tanks, aircraft, anti-aircraft systems, communications systems, missile facilities, weapons stores, production facilities, and – especially if it’s Israel – as big a chunk of the social infrastructure as it can get away with.  If the Syrian rebels can’t or won’t thoroughly destroy the military capacity of the Syrian state, and if the Americans (and their Arab and Turkish allies) want to avoid the embarrassing presence of the IDF in the Assad endgame, the US will have to do this dirty work on Israel’s behalf.  “Chemical weapons” are nothing but a cover for that.

Anyone who doubts how the US/NATO-Saudi project for Syria helps complete the Zionist dreamscape need only take a look at how the Israeli Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon gleefully assesses its effects.  He predicts, “Syria’s fragmentation into provinces, adding that Lebanon will suffer the same fate in the future.”  And he’s seconded by ”a high-ranking Israeli officer” who, assuring us that “there is evidence of this development,” “predict[s] the formation of an Alawite district in the coastal region, which would include the cities of Tartous and Latakia…[and that] a Sunni province would also be formed as would a Druze one in Jabal al-Druze.”  And, not wanting to leave anyone out, he adds that, “there is a possibility of the formation of a Kurdish province in northern Syria.”  As Ayalon sees it, “the Arab world is passing through a phase that will restore it back to the way it was before World War I ….[ruling] out the possibility of the emergence of an Arab alliance that would stand in opposition to Israel in the next 10 to 15 years.”

Clearly, the Israeli foreign office sees the “Arab Spring” in general, and the Syrian “rebellion” in particular, as having been transmogrified – and that would be by the US/NATO-Saudi interventions -- into a “phase” from which the Arab world will emerge beaten into pre-Sykes-Picot colonial impotence.

There is certainly a lot of Israeli wishful thinking in this version of back-to-the-future, not-so-neo colonialism, but it reflects all too much of what actual policies augur.  It’s not hard to see how this adventure can end up with the “Lebanonization” or “Somalization” of Syria.  Haven’t we already seen something like this in Iraq and Libya?  In fact, if we understand it as an accellerated shock-and-awe version of what one Israeli critic calls ”Politicide” -- the slow-motion Israeli process of destroying the Palestinian polity -- we also understand how that process underlies, and provides a model for, the entire American/Israeli/neocon strategy for the Arab world over the last ten years.

Of course, reinforcing the “strongman vs. Islamist” dichotomy, while marginalizing secular progressive and revolutionary currents, is, for many of its producers, exactly the point of this show.  It reinforces the notion that the Arab world is a chaotic and dangerous neighborhood, incapable of progressive democratic reform, filled with demonic Salafis and sectarians, where Israel, as well as the United States, must have the ability to strike at will.  In other words, it justifies endless “war on terror” intervention, surveillance, and spending (now a staple of the American economy).  It also diverts our gaze from the increasingly racist, aggressive, and apartheid character of the Israeli state, and perpetuates the distorted image of Israel as a beleaguered bastion of liberal democracy.

In the end, there is no end, just endless war. This complex team of producers and directors can provide a whiz-bang action flick, where a lot of things get blown up. That each member of this team thinks it can control all the motley cast and crew it has hired and armed in this drama is, however, just another sign of their various delusions of omnipotence – and of their failure to learn the lessons of 80s Afghanistan (as well as Iraq).  Sure, the US and its Gulf allies and their paid army will change Syria in some radical way, but it’s a good bet that Syria and the world will not get what any of these folks claim they are seeking, or what they think they’re paying for, but something nastier than anyone foresaw. 

Saudi Arabia may think it’s gaining from pushing Sunni fundamentalism throughout the region, and being left standing as the alpha Arab country.  But it will find, not far down the road, that it, too, will be -- and not for nothing -- in the crosshairs of pro-Zionist nation destruction in the guise of “pro-democracy” regime change.  There’s also the slight wrinkle that a lot of the Salafis whom the Saudis fund and arm are themselves not very fond of the Saudi regime.  In fact, there’s already trouble in the Kingdom.  Indeed, if Egypt is still the big ticking bomb of the region, the hidden minefields are in the monarchies.  Despite their facades of stability, any of them -- Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or Morocco – might easily blow up when no one is looking, with rebellions much less likely to solicit or receive the imperial imprimatur.

Turkey, which would like to be received as the Arabs’ “elder brother,” and has been building a rather nice reputation in the neighborhood, risks tarnishing it by participating in his brothers’ and brothers’ friends’ destructive schemes.  It has been the line producer for the Saudi-Qatari-American-Israeli show that the Syrian rebellion has become, and that role is already causing it a heap of trouble -- from the spillover sectarianism that is affecting 15-20 million Turkish Alawites, to the revival of the Kurdish autonomy issue.  Assad has shrewdly put the latter into play by essentially ceding a Kurdish autonomy zone in northern Syria.  You can bet that, post-Assad, if it suits them, the West and Israel will take up the cause of Kurdish “freedom” against Turkey (if, say, Turkey were to get too uppity about Gaza, or something).  If the Turks are dreaming of some kind of neo-Ottoman sphere of influence, they’re more likely to be left isolated in the face of Arab resentment, and jilted by their erstwhile partners, who definitely intend for Israelis, not Turks, to be the pashas of the coming pre-post-Sykes-Picot regional empire.

And, to return to the template of 1980s Afghanistan, we find Turkey now playing the same role in relation to Syria as Pakistan played in relation to Afghanistan -- providing American and Saudi sponsored bases, in which fanatical jihadis get weapons and training to help destroy a secular regime next door, creating a radicalism that will justify foreign intervention.  That worked out well.  Especially for Pakistan.

As for America and Israel, we are dealing with a hard case of delusion.  Not a delusion that everything is going to be hunky-dory; they know very well that the forces they’ve unleashed in this Syria endeavor are going to wreak havoc throughout the region for some time to come. The committed, ruthless jihadis who have been recruited to Syria are not on the American-Israeli page, and they are not going to stop.  Weak and divided states are going to generate misery and resentment.  There will be a lot of anger, with a lot of good reason, directed against Israel and the United States.  As stated above, for them, that’s not the catch, that’s the point.  Perpetual war is necessary -- for both countries politically, and for the United States economically, at least in the short run.  The delusion is that they think they can manage this forever by blowing stuff up.  And why shouldn’t they?  They’ve been getting by with that for decades.  And now they have drones!  Good for blowing up all the right people.  Still, it does, in every way, get expensive and wearisome.  It all depends on how long the short run is.

So, the US/NATO-Saudi intervention in Syria is going to succeed in blowing the country apart. Building something really progressive and democratic? Not so much. Indeed, its worst effect, which is already taking hold among many in the region, would be, as Barqawi remarks: “that the term ‘revolution’ has sadly lost its worth and luster for a sizable portion of the Syrian populace, and in the Arab world in general, as the word itself has become marred by abhorrent stigmas of sectarianism, religious fanaticism, succumbing to foreign agendas, subjugation of national integrity and social disintegration.”

For that attitude not to become predominant, before the short run runs out, secular, democratic forces throughout the region will have to develop a revolutionary politics – a politics that goes beyond deposing the tyrant and evoking abstract notions of freedom and democracy, that mobilizes diverse constituencies around political and social demands which promise to make people’s lives concretely better, and that has a fighting strategy which does not depend on foreign military intervention.  If they don’t, they will once again appear as irrelevant troublemakers, whose complaints against dictators and strongmen only pave the way for foreign meddling, Salafist fanaticism, and the breakdown of a nation.

To finally mix the metaphors: If US/NATO-Saudi intervention in Syria is a film; it’s a disaster movie (with the blockbuster sequel, Iran, now in production). If it’s a stew, there are too many cooks, and too many flies.

Either way, there will be blowback.

Update (1/29/13):  I corrected the following sentence, adding the "not" which I had somehow lost in editing, and which changes the meaning of the sentence.  Lucky that I happened to re-read this post today.  Apologies for the egregious error.
"It is also highly unlikely that Israel would have accepted any such assurance that did not allow it to be a direct, if silent, partner in the project, and to have a free hand in post-Assad Syria."

See related Syria post here.
List of links cited:

“Ayalon Predicts Syria’s Fragmentation and for Lebanon to Suffer Same Fate,”

“Syria: Turning Back the Clock on the Arab Spring,”

“AP: CIA Spies Smuggling Missiles To Their Syria Terrorists,”

“USA Holds Its Breath: Saudi Arabia’s uprising surmounts the regime’s impregnable shield.”
“The Somalia Model: Israel’s Plan for Syria,”

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