Syria: how the West is sanctioning sectarianism

In the name of making a PR performance of their moral resolve, Western governments are meddling in Syria in an ever-more lethal way.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
Editor

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For a textbook example of how Western meddling in other states’ affairs makes bad situations worse, look no further than Syria.

In a country that was already being rocked by violent clashes, Western grandstanding has had the effect of upping the ante and intensifying the violence. In the name of scoring some cheap PR points and giving vent to their ‘moral impulse’, a motley crew of immature foreign-policy wonks and narcissistic commentators have backed, with both words and weapons, Syria’s rebels. In the process, they have effectively sanctioned sectarianism, given their blessing to the Balkanisation of Syria, through boosting one side and isolating the other in what is an increasingly ugly ethnic conflict.

Western leaders like William Hague, the UK foreign secretary who last week announced that Britain would salve ‘the conscience of humanity’ by sending equipment to Syria’s oppositionists, depict the Syrian conflict as a clash between bad guys and good guys. On one side there stands Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime, which all of us can agree is long past its sell-by date. And on the other side stand what Hague describes as ‘rebels’ and what US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has called the ‘legitimate representatives of Syrians’ – that is, the anti-Assad movement, consisting mainly of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is packed with former Assad soldiers, and the political grouping that the FSA has (shaky) links to, the Syrian National Council.

Recent history – stretching from Kosovo in 1999 to Darfur in 2006 – suggests we should be very sceptical when Western observers seek to convince us that complex conflicts overseas are in fact fantastically clear-cut stand-offs between, as one commentator characterises it in relation to Syria, ‘an evil dictator and noble freedom fighters’. Such infantile moralism is almost always a prelude to either direct or indirect Western intervention, allowing for the casual demonisation of one group of people and the blinkered elevation of another. And so it is in relation to Syria. The sobering truth is that, whatever Hague and Clinton claim, there is no liberation movement in Syria. There is no ‘good’ side. What there is is the corrosion and collapse of a rotten regime, with Western observers glorifying this process by disingenuously depicting it as the emergence of a liberation movement determined to replace Assad’s system with democracy.

Indeed, the first deeply problematic instance of Western meddling in Syria was its adoption of various of Syria’s elite elements and defectors from Assad’s military apparatus as legitimate liberators. The West effectively handpicked who were Syria’s ‘legitimate representatives’, which is, of course, a profound contradiction in terms. In February this year, at a meeting in Tunisia, the Friends of Syria, the PC name given to the Western governments and NGOs keen to intervene in Syria, anointed the Syrian National Council (SNC) as the legitimate spokespeople for Syrians. Founded in Istanbul in September last year, the SNC was hurried into the respectable international fold by the likes of Clinton, who christened it a ‘leading legitimate representative of Syrians’, and the EU, which likewise described it as a ‘legitimate representative’.

Yet a glance at the make-up of the SNC reveals that it has little connection with, far less a mandate from, the Syrian people. Consisting largely of academics based far from Syria, there is nothing ‘representative’ about this group. Its founding president was Burhan Ghalioun, who is based, not in Homs, but in the Sorbonne, where he is a professor of political sociology. Its latest president is Abdulbaset Sieda, a philosopher based in Sweden. Of the original executive committee of the SNC, only two members were based in Syria – all the rest were professors, writers and human-rights activists in Europe, who would need extraordinary powers of telepathy to be the legitimate representatives of anything in Syria.

Clearly, Western leaders and NGOs are happier dealing with polite professors in Europe – people just like them – than they are dealing with the rock-throwing rabble inside Syria itself. The West’s anointment of the SNC as ‘legitimate’ had important knock-on effects in Syria. Firstly, it stymied the Arab Spring-inspired uprising in Syria, the Egypt-style protests by anti-Assad citizens which erupted last year and carried on into early this year, by effectively handing authority for the ‘revolution’ to external agents. In the words of Bassam Haddad, director of Middle East Studies at George Mason University in the US, the international blessing (and logistical support) given to the SNC meant ‘the Syrian revolution can no longer be taken at face value’, since the group chosen to lead it is ‘totally dependent on external powers and funding’. And secondly, the sanctification of the SNC implicitly transformed the conflict in Syria from one between Assad and vast sections of his population into one between Assad and tiny numbers of influential, well-connected Syrian people based in Europe. It feudalised the uprising, making it less a democratic clash and more a drawn-out act of inter-elite vengeance.

Not content with having shunted the Syrian people off the stage by informing them who their revolutionary leaders were, Western governments moved on to supporting the divided, divisive and increasingly sectarian Free Syrian Army. The FSA, like the SNC before it, is being held up as a legitimate liberatory force. In his statement last week, in which he announced that Britain would give £5million worth of ‘non-lethal assistance’ to Syrian rebels, Hague described what Assad is doing as ‘an affront to the conscience of humanity’ and implied that groups like the FSA were all about redressing this affront. In truth, the FSA is not a representative or even coherent liberation army – it is a loose, unpredictable collection of former Assad generals, foreign fighters and hardline religious groups.

Its commander is Riyad al-Asaad, a former colonel in the Syrian Air Force, and its ranks are made up of former Assad loyalists alongside every other shade of anti-Assad opposition, from the political to the Islamist. As a writer for Foreign Policy put it, ‘The “Free Syrian Army” remains something of a fiction, a convenient mailbox for a diverse, unorganised collection of local fighting groups’. The FSA is more a franchise than an army, where various groups, some large, some small, fight their own anti-Assad battles under the FSA banner; some reports claim that Colonel Riyad al-Asaad controls only 20 per cent of the FSA fighters on the ground, with the others pretty much doing their own thing.

In an ethnically divided country like Syria, it is inevitable that such a loose franchise would attract all manner of anti-Assad elements that have less than glorious motivations. It is now reported that some of the FSA’s fighters are ‘hardline Islamists who fought parallel, if not alongside, al-Qaeda in neighbouring Iraq’. Some secular Syrian activists have expressed concern about the ‘religious and sectarian extremists within the Free Syrian Army’. And yet the FSA is fulsomely backed by the West, not only with Hague’s ‘non-lethal assistance’ but also with lethal assistance from the US. The New York Times reports that CIA officers based in southern Turkey are working alongside ‘Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood [and] Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar’ to funnel to Syria’s rebels ‘automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons’. The CIA working with conservative Islamic elements to topple a corrupt secular regime? Clearly the US has learned nothing from history.

The conflict in Syria is taking on an increasingly sectarian character. The ruling regime is made up mainly of Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam; the opposition consists largely of Sunni Muslims. Syria’s Christians, who make up 10 per cent of the population, largely back Assad because they fear for their future in a potentially more Islamicised Syria. Some Christians have reported being burned out of their homes by ‘Arabs from different countries’ who ‘accuse Christians of blasphemy’. By intervening into this conflict on one side, legitimising it and arming it, Western actors are deepening the ethnic divide and inflaming the violence. Through severely isolating Assad’s regime, they have left it with nothing to lose, freer now than ever before to lash out violently against its political and ethnic enemies; and in boosting and militarising the FSA, they have given sanction to its various franchised sectarian and religious elements, too, nurturing increasingly depraved acts of supposedly ‘libertarory’ violence across Syria.

But the most remarkable thing is why the West has meddled in Syria in this way. It hasn’t done so in pursuit of any grand regional aims, but rather as an act of political PR, spin, in an attempt to demonstrate that it represents the ‘conscience of humanity’. Western interference in Syria shows how severe is the rupture between the West’s international interests and its international actions. Our governments seem increasingly incapable of pursuing any rational, long-term interests on the international stage and instead engage in quickfire political stunts designed to advertise their seriousness about Doing Something. Indeed, Western observers are increasingly treating Syria, not as a country in a serious conflict, surrounded by a host of other, potentially volatile countries, but merely as a ‘test’ of their own resolve. We must intervene in order to demonstrate our ‘moral impulse’, says a former speechwriter for Tony Blair; Syria is the ‘biggest historical, political and moral test’ of our generation, says Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French philosopher whose itchy desire to ‘Do Something’ in Syria reflects the outlook of many Westerners-in-search-of-a-mission today.

Bereft of any rational realpolitik outlook, and consumed by a desire to make a PR performance of their inner determination and decency, it seems Western narcissists and foreign-policy fools are more than happy to throw yet more petrol on Syria’s sectarian fire.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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