Guest Post by NAUMAN SADIQ
Let me admit at the outset that Assad is an illegitimate tyrant who must abdicate his hereditary throne to the will of the people when the opportune moment arrives. But at the moment our primary concern shouldn’t be bringing democracy to Syria; at the moment our first and foremost priority should be reducing the level of violence in Syria. There are two parties to this conflict: the regime and the rebels (the majority of whom are takfiri jihadis). It is not possible for the regime to deescalate the conflict because it is holding a tiger by the tail. The regime is fighting a war of defense; and what is at stake in this war is its survival; not only its survival but the survival of its clan: the Alawite minority of 2.6 million people who comprise 12% population of Syria’s 22 million people.
The second party to the conflict is the rebels who are generously supported by the Gulf monarchies, Turkey (Sunni Muslims), Western powers and Israel. Don’t get alarmed and be dismissive of the possibility of an alliance  between the Sunni Muslims of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey and the Zionists of Israel. It is realpolitik: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. In fact the Western interest in this war is partly about Israel’s regional security because the Shia axis comprising Iran-Syria-Hezbollah is an existential threat to Israel; and with each passing year the nature of this threat will enhance proportionally with the increased sophistication of Iranian missile program. During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict in Lebanon, most of the rockets fired by Hezbollah into the Israeli territory missed their target; but according to some reports Iran and Hezbollah have already developed smarter missiles and with every passing year the threat of Hezbollah’s guided missiles so close to Israeli borders will keep on haunting the Israeli strategists’ dreams.
Another reason for the unnatural Western, especially US, Britain and France’s interest in the happenings in Syria is about making ‘friendly’ autocratic Arab regimes friendlier and about neutralizing the enemy’s capabilities by taking advantage of the opportunity provided to them in the form of a just war based on moral reasons. Let me elaborate this complexity. First of all we must admit that the political movement in Syria for enfranchisement is real; and even the militant elements find some support in the Sunni majority areas of Syria. An insurgency cannot survive without some level of support from the local population. And especially in the context of Syria which has ill-guarded borders with Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Iraq; the cross-border movement of militants, arms and munitions cannot be tightly controlled.
When I say that the war in Syria is as much about Israel’s regional security as it is about the ‘friendly’ autocratic Arab regimes; I mean to say that the Arab regimes, just like the Syrian regime, are illegitimate and lack the support of their people. They rule by force and force alone. Today a political-turned-militant movement is knocking on Syria’s doors; tomorrow the same set of circumstances will visit Jordan, Saudia and the rest of the GCC; but mindful of the threat why then are they adding fuel to the fire? To understand this we need to understand the nature of the militancy. The militants who are fighting this war are ideological people; they are like a deluge which cannot be restrained; the best policy to avoid damage to one’s own home is to divert these floodwaters to somebody else’s home; and especially if that somebody else is also an enemy; it will buy them time and also reduce the severity of the flood. The Arab autocrats only have two choices to control extremism and militancy: one, to carry out internal political reforms, to enfranchise the people and to let them have a say in their domestic and foreign policy; two, to divert their attention away from the home front to an engineered external threat.
Machiavelli advised his patron that invent enemies and then slay them in order to control your subjects. The Arab autocrats are paying heed to this Machiavellian advice; they have invented a Shia enemy to control their Sunni subjects. But why did the West chose to become a part of this evil scheme? Last year the chiefs of staff of the US, Britain, France, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey met in Jordan; and a report by UAE’s newspaper  also mentions the existence of a secret command center in Jordan which is staffed by military officials from 14 Western and Arab countries including Israel. This command center coordinates the operations of the rebels (jihadis) in southern Syria; while the operations of the jihadis in northern Syria are coordinated by similar command centers and bases in Turkey.
Aside from Israel’s regional security another factor that always plays in the Western strategists’ mind is their “vital interests” in the Middle Eastern region which is a euphemism for oil. Here let me warn the reader to avoid taking a linear approach: the Syrian war isn’t directly about oil or the gas pipelines; Syria only produces moderate quantities of oil; about 400,000 barrels per day from the north-east. Directly it isn’t about oil but indirectly it is. By joining hands with the friendly Arab autocrats and by keeping the Middle East region in turmoil especially by creating a specter of a Shia threat, it suits the interests of both: the Arab autocrats and the Big Oil. It also creates a raison d’etre for the existence of the NATO military bases in Qatar, UAE, Jordan, Kuwait and Bahrain.
The Syrian war isn’t directly about oil but the Iraq and Libyan wars were. Libya produces 1.6 million barrels per day of oil (2% of global output, a very significant figure keeping in mind that the post-war Iraq also produces about 3 mbpd and has a potential of reaching 5 mbpd in a few years; and Saudia produces about 10 mbpd, 15% of the global oil output.) They also held elections in Libya in 2012 to legitimize their “humanitarian intervention.” But two-thirds of the seats were reserved for the independent (non-party) candidates and only one-third were allocated to the political parties because they were afraid that some Ikhwan or Al-Nahda (Ennahda) like anti-American Islamist-dominated party might also emerge in Libya. By having two-third parliamentarians as independents the Big Oil made it sure that they get a friendly government by wheeling-dealing and horse-trading such “independents.” It’s ironic that despite this clever manipulation of elections the anti-American Islamists still managed to form the largest bloc in the parliament in the previous Libyan elections. The June 2014 elections don’t count because the turnout was only 18% while in the 2012 elections it was 60%.
Some journalists are wary about the role of Islamists in the post-war Syria; there are many possible scenarios keeping in mind the Libya precedent. From an Israeli strategists’ point of view, in any case a weakened Syria, which might also include some Islamist elements in the future Syrian government, will be less of a threat compared to the powerful anti-Zionist Shia axis of Iran-Syria-Hezbollah. So far the NATO-GCC-Israel alliance has refrained from attacking Syria because of the repercussions (Israel has carried out a few air-force strikes inside Syria): how will Hezbollah respond in the event of a strike and how will Iran respond? Iran-Syria-Hezbollah are no match for the military might of NATO; but Hezbollah can launch rocket strikes from very close to the borders of Israel and it has the capability to hit all the Israeli cities. The escalation of the conflict beyond all control is also keeping a check on the NATO’s ambitions; what if Iran launches missiles on the Achilles heel of the Big Oil: the Abqaiq oil facility in Saudi Arabia and other oil installations in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia or the Persian Gulf; what if it tries to block the strait of Hormuz through which a large quantity of oil passes every day? It’s the Iran’s missile program with conventional warheads which is a bigger threat to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries than its nuclear program.
Like I said in the beginning of this post: the political movement for enfranchisement in Syria is legitimate, indigenous and widespread; the Syrian regime is illegitimate, tyrannical and despotic; but we are in the midst of a war here; at the moment our first and foremost concern should be reducing the level of violence and the resultant human suffering. Assad cannot deescalate because he is fighting a war of survival; not only for himself but also for his community. The only way to deescalate the conflict is: if NATO, GCC, Turkey and Israel withdraw their support from the rebels. When I say that the political aspect of the Syrian revolution is legitimate and democratic; but the militant aspect of the conflict is illegitimate and undemocratic; I draw an artificial but necessary distinction. We must support the political aspirations of the Syrian people but at the same time we should be mindful of the boundaries which should not be crossed: the militarization of the protests must be avoided, no matter what.
Here, let me clarify that I don’t support any party to the Syrian conflict; I am as much against Iran-Syria-Hezbollah (Shia) axis as I am against the NATO-GCC-Israel nexus. My sole concern: that the killings must stop in Syria are based on the Harm Principle that the human suffering must be avoided. Political movement for enfranchisement in Syria is real and legitimate; the Assad regime should have heeded to the changed dynamics of the Arab Spring in 2011; now he is willing to negotiate and to carry out political reforms, but it seems too little too late. Unfortunately the political movement turned militant in Syria after a violent crackdown by the regime on the protestors. Some regional interests took advantage of the opportunity provided to them; and they further militarized the conflict, not in the interest of democracy or peace but in their own long term security interests. But it is my firm opinion that any further militarization of the conflict or another “humanitarian intervention” will only make matters worse; it will open the floodgates of militancy, violence and carnage.
Syria with a population of 22 million is unlike the Libyan desert which is only sparsely populated (6 million.) The regime is far more entrenched and militarily capable; it is supported not only by the Alawite minority but also by the Sunni majority of the urban Syria. The rebels who are mostly comprised of Al-Nusra Front, Tawheed and Farouq brigades, Saudi-backed Islamic Front (50 to 60,000) which includes members from al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, mostly derive their strength from the backward rural areas of Syria. This unholy alliance between the Takfiri terrorists and the NATO-GCC-Israel nexus must be dismantled, if we want peace and stability to prevail in Syria. Over 190,000 Syrians have already died, and millions became homeless; an ill-conceived military intervention or training more jihadis will only make matters worse; it will turn a man-made disaster into an unimaginable catastrophe. There is only one way to avert this catastrophe: Instead of training and arming more jihadis, NATO, GCC and Israel must withdraw their support from the so-called moderate ‘rebels’ aka the green and yellow jihadis  as opposed to the ‘red jihadis’ of ISIS which are a tad too autonomous for the taste of Western powers.
The Syrian conflict is not limited to Syria alone, this blackhole can suck-in the whole of Middle East region, which it already has; especially Lebanon and Iraq, who also have a significant Shia-Sunni faultlines. It is time for adopting a prudent policy; a policy of de-weaponization and de-escalation; not a policy of another “humanitarian” intervention or further escalation and militarization of the conflict by training and arming more jihadis, which will lead to a conflagration in the whole region.
What we are witnessing today in Syria is a consequence of the Iraq war of 2003, and what the aftermath of the Syrian war will be, it’s obvious now: after the ISIS’ capture of half of Iraq. When I say that the Jihadi phenomena in Syria is an aftermath of the Iraq war, we need to understand the geopolitics of the region. The borders between Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are quite porous; and the writs of the respective governments, though well-established in the urban areas, are weak in the rural-tribal border regions. If one state decides to crackdown on the Jihadis, they move across the border to the other state until things cool down; just like the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas. The Iraq war is primarily to be blamed for the Sunni-Shia conflict, not only in Iraq but also in Syria.
The 2006-7 Iraqi surge slowed down the Jihadis for a while; but taking advantage of the opportunity presented to them in Syria; this hydra-headed monster raised its ugly head again during the 2011-onwards Arab Spring phenomena in the Middle East and North Africa region. And now most of Syria and the western and northern Iraq are under the control of takfiri jihadis.
When the protests began against the Assad regime in Syria in March 2011, ISIS and al Nusra Front were a single organization from August 2011 to April 2013, when al Nusra split away from its parent organization: Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIS operated in the Syrian theater since August 2011 but under the banner of al Nusra, however the emir of the latter organization: al Jawlani (al Golani) was appointed by ISIS’ chief: Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. It was only in October 2013 that the ‘nominal’ leader of al Qaeda Central: Ayman al Zawahiri endorsed al Nusra and ordered the disbanding of ISIS, though he was rebuked by Baghdadi offhand. Here is the relevant excerpt from the Wikipedia entry  on ISIS:
In March 2011, protests began in Syria against the government of Bashar al-Assad. In the following month violence between demonstrators and security forces lead to a gradual militarisation of the conflict. In August 2011, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi began sending Syrian and Iraqi jihadis, experienced in guerilla warfare, across the border into Syria to establish an organisation inside the country. Lead by a Syrian known as Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, the group began to recruit fighters and establish cells throughout the country. On 23 January 2012, the group announced its formation as Jabhat al-Nusra l’Ahl as-Sham, more commonly known as al-Nusra Front. Nusra rapidly expanded into a capable fighting force with a level of popular support among opposition supporters in Syria. In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released an audio statement in which he announced that Al-Nusra Front—also known as Jabhat al-Nusra—had been established, financed and supported by the Islamic State of Iraq. Al-Baghdadi declared that the two groups were merging under the name “Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham”. The leader of Al-Nusra Front, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, issued a statement denying the merger and complaining that neither he nor anyone else in Al-Nusra’s leadership had been consulted about it.
By carefully reading this excerpt it become clear that a single organization operated in Syria until 2013; that organization chose the banner: ‘Jabhat ul Nusra’ until April 2013 but after April 2013 it rebranded itself as: ISIS. Al Jawlani and the current al Nusra Front is only a splinter group of its parent organization: ISIS. Here let me clarify that although a US government department had issued strict instructions that ISIS should only be cited as ISIL: Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, but I still prefer the name: ISIS. Perhaps the USG feels uncomfortable lumping Iraq and Syria together; because ISIS’ recent gains in Iraq are a direct outcome of the destabilization in Syria where the US supports the Syrian ‘rebels’ (read: Jihadis) against the Assad regime [ISIS’ rebranding itself as ‘Islamic State’ solved the corporate media’s biggest dilemma, now the whole ISIS/ISIL debate is irrelevant].
Coming back to the topic, ISIS operated in the Syrian theater since August 2011 and its sabotage activities against the Assad regime were fully supported by the US’ allies in the region: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait and Jordan. The US blacklisted al Nusra Front (ISIS after April 2013) only in December 2012. Thus, for one and a half year, from August 2011 to December 2012, the US government tolerated and indirectly supported ISIS in Syria where it ‘liberated’ one-third of Syrian territory in the north and east from the clutches of the US’ arch-rival: the Assad regime. Everything which al Nusra did in Syria until April 2013 – it won many battles and conquered huge chunks of territory from the Regime all over Syria – was actually the doing of ISIS with the endorsement and support of the US’ allies in the region: Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan.
Some corporate media journalists and the US-based foreign policy pundits try to cast aspersions over the role played by Assad regime in dealing with ISIS. I agree that during the civil war Assad regime’s hands were too full with consolidating its hold over urban Syria and the southern front to deal with ISIS in the north and the east. But it let its ally the Syrian Kurds fight the ISIS who managed to liberate many towns from ISIS’ hold throughout the last year.
Here we must try to understand the Kurd factor in the Syrian conflict. The PYD Kurds of Syria are completely opposite to the Iraqi Kurds led by Massoud Barzani. Barzani is pro-West while the Leftist PYD Kurds are closer to the PKK, both of whom are anti-imperialist. And as we know, Assad too is anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist therefore they formed a united front against the Syrian Mujahideen: whether ISIS or the so-called ‘moderate rebels.’
Although ISIS is now on the ‘terror-list’ of the US, Turkey as well as Saudi Arabia; but come on, who are we kidding? Friends of today will be the enemies of tomorrow and the enemies of today were the friends of yesterday . The US declared ISIS and the al Nusra Front as terrorist organizations in December 2012 only for the sake of ‘plausible deniability.’ The US also pressurized its allies in the Syrian war: Saudi Arabia and Turkey to nominally declare both these organizations as terrorist organizations and they obliged. Turkey put both these two ‘names’ on its terror-list in September 2013 while Saudi Arabia followed suit in early 2014. These so-called ‘terror designations’ helped the Establishment-allied corporate media in constructing a narrative whereby the Gulf states are absolved from their responsibility for financing these organizations and all the blame is squarely put on the ‘private Gulf-based donors’ which are not-culpable because they are ‘unidentifiable’ individual Sheikhs and not the responsible and identifiable state entities.
Moreover, the corporate media kept on blaming the Maliki government for the emergence of ISIS; no doubt because of his heavy-handed and pro-Shia policies the Sunnis of Iraq do feel alienated; and due to this reason some of them could have become sympathetic to the ISIS; because an insurgency cannot exceed without some level of support from the local population. But the direct and effective cause of ISIS’ capture of half of Iraq is the Syrian conflict. In fact there isn’t much difference between Iraq and Syria if you look at the map; the western Iraq is eastern Syria and the eastern Syria is western Iraq.
But why does the corporate media refrains from discussing ISIS’ triumph in Iraq from the Syrian angle? Could it be because it kept trumpeting for the last three and a half years of the Syrian war that the Assad regime is an evil incarnate while the Syrian Mujahideen are the ‘goodness personified?’ Despite the death toll of 190,000 innocent Syrians, the Western media kept vilifying Assad and glorifying the so-called ‘rebels’ and now when the same rebels in the form of Islamic State have swept half of Iraq, they are blaming the Maliki government for the fiasco. One way or the other, keeps the powers-that-be engaged in the Middle East where they also have ‘vital strategic interests’ .
By the way, who are those moderate Syrian ‘rebels’ whose invisible presence and equally invisible victories in Syria have helped the Western media construct a narrative of a war of Syrian liberation? Are they the Free Syria Army (FSA?) In which areas of Syria do they operate? Aleppo is under the effective control of Ahrar ul Sham and Tawheed Brigade; in the south there is al Nusra Front and the Saudi-backed Islamic Front which is a confederation of numerous Jihadi outfits including members of al Nusra which is endorsed by Ayman al Zawahiri as the official franchise of al Qaeda in Syria, and designated as a terrorist organization by the US, Turkey and the Saudi Arabia, but only officially, unofficially they are an integral part and a formidable component of a united Sunni resistance against the Alawi regime. And the northern and eastern Syria, we already know, is under the control of the Islamic State. So where does that elusive Free Syria Army operates? Name a single Syrian town which is under the effective control of FSA?
According to CIA’s estimates ISIS’ total strength is numbered between 20,000 to 31,500 in both Syria and Iraq; the majority of its fighters are Arabs including ‘thousands of Saudis’ and Sunni jihadis from territorially-contiguous countries: Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan; around 1000 Turkish jihadis; and thousands of Arabs from territorially non-contiguous Arab states: like Egypt, Algeria, Libya etc; and according to some reports there are also ‘hundreds’ of European and American citizens among its ranks.
Finally, the obvious response to the Islamic States’ capture of Mosul should have been an immediate rethink and reversal of the ill-conceived Syria policy; a cessation of hostilities; an avowal of withdrawing all kinds of support to the Syrian Mujahideen; and pressurizing the NATO’s partners-in-crime: Turkey and the Gulf monarchies, that they too should desist from supporting the Syrian Jihadis. But the Obama-Kerry duo took a leaf out of neocons’ book and came up with a novel strategy to deal with the changed circumstances of the Syrian conflict: they are now asking the US Congress to give them more money, and to allow them to send more arms to the ‘moderate Syrian rebels’ who would then beat back both the regime and the Jihadists. Now this indeed is an attempt to test the credulity of the reader. But they will succeed, like they and their predecessors have succeeded on numerous other occasions in the past. The reader is too misinformed and too busy in earning his bread and butter; and the corporate media is a very powerful tool in the hands of vested interests and the entrenched forces of structural injustice; so much so that it can create a parallel reality where war appears as ‘humanitarian intervention’ and hardcore jihadis as innocuous-sounding ‘Syrian rebels.’
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Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, blogger and imperial politics aficionado with a particular interest in the politics of Af-Pak and Middle East regions.