History tends to repeat itself. But seldom has it done so as mindlessly as it is about to do in Syria. The United States and its European allies are about to provide “air and sea support” to the Syrian rebels in order to bring the 20-month civil war to a close. Their plans are far advanced: The USS Eisenhower , with eight squadrons of fighter planes and 8,000 marines, has arrived off the Syrian coast and a second aircraft carrier is on its way. Germany has transferred Patriot missiles to Turkey, which is stationing them on the Syrian border. The United Nations is withdrawing all non-essential personnel from Syria and, following a meeting between Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in New York, Russia has withdrawn its warships from Lattakia harbour. In its hour of need, Syria, the last secular, modern state in the Arab world, stands utterly alone and abandoned.
Even the pretext for the intervention is in place. On December 3, Barack Obama formally warned Syria that “there would be consequences” if it used chemical weapons against its own people or indeed in any circumstances, even to repel a foreign invasion. All that is now needed is a video put up on YouTube showing the effect of Assad’s chemical weapons on ‘innocent civilians’. Doubtless the opposition will oblige, as it has been doing for the last 19 months. As a senior Indian diplomat remarked to the author last week, NATO is preparing another Gulf of Tonkin incident, the faked attack on a U.S. warship that triggered the Vietnam war.
NATO is considering declaring war on Syria out of the purest of motives. According to The Independent of London, the head of Britain’s armed forces, General Sir David Richards, “hosted a confidential meeting in London a few weeks ago attended by the military chiefs of France, Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and the UAE, and a three-star American general, in which the strategy was discussed at length … The commanders’ conference was held at the request of the Prime Minister, according to senior Whitehall sources. David Cameron is said to be determined that more should be done by Britain to bring to an end the bloody strife which has claimed 40,000 lives so far and made millions homeless. One key concern is the onset of winter, with 2.5 million people inside Syria needing help and 1.5 million internally displaced by the fighting, according to the U.N.”
But such expressions of concern ring hollow when they come from countries that did not hesitate to invade Iraq after fabricating the same pretext they are thinking of using now in Syria, and declared an unprovoked war on Libya under a U.N. resolution obtained through fraud. The real reason for this lurch towards direct military intervention (albeit without ‘boots on the ground’) is the West’s belated realisation that a victory by the ‘opposition’ will bring to power not a moderate Sunni government controlled by Turkey but a government dominated by the violent and bigoted Takfiris that make up al-Qaeda.
This threat has not developed suddenly. Indeed the U.S. has been fully aware of the presence of al-Qaeda in the so-called Free Syrian Army since April 20, 2011 when Jihadis captured a truck (or Armoured Personnel Carrier) near Dera’a, and killed all the 18 or 20 soldiers it was carrying not by shooting them but by cutting their throats in the approved Islamic manner. A few days later, the U.S. ambassador in Syria, Robert Ford, called some of his colleagues in Damascus, including the Indian ambassador, and told them that al-Qaeda had arrived in Syria.
April 20, however, was only the beginning. All through the summer and autumn of 2011, and throughout 2012, videos posted by the rebels themselves showed that the armed opposition in Syria has been sliding inexorably into the hands of radical Islamists. Thousands of foreign fighters have poured into Syria from Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and places as far apart as Pakistan and Chechnya. Syrian television broadcast interviews with numerous young men captured in Homs and elsewhere, who gave graphic descriptions of how they had been recruited by al-Qaeda to fight for Islam against a heretical regime in Syria. The rebels themselves have posted YouTube videos showing them executing captured Syrian soldiers and civilians in the approved manner.
But the Obama administration has steadfastly chosen to believe that the jihadis make up only ‘a tiny fraction’ of the Free Syrian Army, and has continued to provide FSA with logistical support, that is, satellite-based information about Syrian troop and VIP movements, and look the other way while Qatar and Saudi Arabia have provided it with guns and mounted pick-up trucks, mortars and RPGs.
This make-believe game had to end, and it did so when a Libyan ship docked in a Turkish port in September 2012 with 400 tons of weapons for the rebels in Syria. This shipment contained SA-7 portable anti-aircraft missiles and Rocket Propelled Grenades. When interviewed, the captain of the ship admitted that he belonged to an organisation that reported directly to the Libyan government. As if that was not disturbing enough, on October 10, the New York Times reported that most of the weapons that had been supplied by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia had gone to hard line Islamist groups in Syria.
Nightmare coming true
For the European Union and the U.S., this was a nightmare coming true. The EU had imposed an embargo on the sale of arms to any party in Syria and the U.S. had refused increasingly frenzied demands from the FSA for ‘heavy weapons’, because they did not want the missiles, which are capable of bringing down civilian aircraft, to fall into al-Qaeda’s hands. Now their own Sunni allies had connived to deliver SA-7s from Qadhafi’s stock in Libya to the rebels. The nightmare became real on November 28 when a rebel group brought down a Syrian army helicopter with a heat seeking missile somewhere north of Aleppo, and western intelligence sources told the Washington Post the very next day that the ‘rebels’ now had at least 40 such missile systems.
At about the same time, it became apparent that the fight against Assad had passed into Takfiris’ hands. Writing in Foreign Policy in October, Aaron Lund listed seven Islamist umbrella groups with, if their claims are accurate, more than 30,000 fighters. All but two are overtly Takfiri, that is, prepared to punish any form of apostasy with death. In the remaining two the most powerful brigades, such as the Ansar-ul-Islam, are made largely of foreign jihadis. Mr. Lund concluded that “Jihadis still make up a minority of the Syrian rebel movement … but they punch far above their weight in terms of both military effectiveness and ideological influence.”
In September, therefore, the NATO powers found themselves on the verge of making the same mistake that the U.S. had made when it invaded Iraq. By destroying Saddam Hussein’s secular albeit despotic regime in 2003, the U.S. created the ‘Shia crescent’ that Israel held responsible for its setback in Lebanon in 2006. The Arab Spring and Osama bin Laden’s death lulled the Obama administration into believing that the threat from al-Qaeda was almost over, and that it was now possible to create a ‘Sunni crescent’ of moderate Islamic states that would safeguard Israel and western interests in the near east. Syria was intended to become the fulcrum of this Sunni crescent, but instead it is on the verge of becoming a jihadi state.
The West has decided to join in the attack on Syria in the hope that by hastening the end of the war, it will forestall the further rise of jihadis. But even had this been possible, the decision has come too late. The first indicator of Salafi supremacy within the armed opposition came in early October when western-backed FSA commanders who had formed a joint military command decided to celebrate by inviting Sheikh Adnan al-Aroor to be their guest of honour. Aroor is a Salafi preacher who gained notoriety by calling upon Sunnis day after day from TV stations in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to cut the Alawis to pieces and feed them to dogs.
The West got its second shock on December 11 when the U.S. decided to declare Jabhat Al Nusra, the most ruthless and powerful jihadi group in Syria, a terrorist organisation and ban the supply of arms to it. No sooner had the news spread than 29 fighting brigades and civilian fronts of the armed opposition banded together to pledge allegiance to it and denounce the U.S. decision. A widely circulated statement on the Syrian opposition’s Facebook page read “These are the men for the people of Syria, these are the heroes who belong to us in religion, in blood and in revolution,” The Al Nusra Front is the Syrian offshoot of Abu Mussab Al Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Had the NATO powers not been obsessed with the need to keep up the appearance of control, it would have realised long ago that hastening the collapse of the Assad regime would worsen the power vacuum that will follow and almost certainly trigger another vicious civil war, this time between the moderate and Salafi militias in the opposition.
(The writer is a senior journalist.)