Shades of Afghanistan in the Levant

In their eagerness to topple the Assad regime, the U.S. and its allies are actively encouraging al Qaeda, now firmly entrenched in Syria

August 27, 2012 12:21 am | Updated August 28, 2012 12:11 am IST

120827- Lead -Syria another Afghanistan

120827- Lead -Syria another Afghanistan

For those who have closely followed the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, the recent events in Syria have a familiar ring. Quite like Pakistan, Turkey has emerged as the frontline state — the spearhead targeting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. The Central Intelligence Agency is playing its part, and its ominous presence at the “nerve centre” in the Turkish city of Adana, coordinating the military strikes buffeting the Assad government, has been well recorded. The wealthy Gulf Arabs are also in attendance, with Qatar playing the role of second-in-command to Saudi Arabia, which is bankrolling and channelling the flow of Islamic extremists, drawn from various parts of the globe, into Syria.

Sense of déjà vu

Grabbing the headlines, and imparting an unmistakable sense of déjà vu , is the story of Syrian “rebels” being armed with Stinger missiles — the shoulder fired super-weapons, whose use by the mujahideen nullified the Red Army’s advantage in the air, and eventually proved decisive in atrophying the Soviet Union’s military campaign in Afghanistan.

But the comparisons with Afghanistan end here. Unlike the fighting in the Hindukush mountain ranges, the so-called Free Syrian Army is not battling an invading force in the heart of the Levant. The Assad government evolved out of Syria’s anti-colonial struggle, the secular ideology of Arab nationalism and its emphasis on an independent foreign policy. Its aspiration to chart its own course during the post-Cold War era was unacceptable to the United States and its allies. With an eye on a resurgent Russia and China, any enclave of independence — Iran, Syria and the Lebanese Hezbollah, being the chief holdouts in the case of West Asia — had, therefore, to be smothered with utmost urgency.

Any excuse for a regime change in the region, however farcical and puerile, was acceptable. Thus, non-existent weapons of mass destruction became the cause for a disastrous invasion of Iraq. The mirage of Iran’s quest for atomic weapons is quite deliberately being kept alive. Syria, the lynchpin of an alliance whose geographical spread extends from the barren stretches of eastern Iran to the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon, is being primed up as a target of a “humanitarian war”. The West has been trying to perfect the technique of foreign military interventions on the ground of human rights protection, first in the former Yugoslavia and more recently in Libya. The mainstream international media, the repository of copious reserves of soft power, is an essential ally in accomplishing regime change in non-compliant states.

Both China and Russia, with Libya fresh in their mind, have with great clarity read the unfolding script in Syria. A commentary on the Syrian situation in Global Times , the Chinese communist party daily, pointed to the compulsiveness that has emerged in the “U.S.-led western world” to promote the notion of “human rights above sovereignty.” The daily added: “The U.S. launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and engineered a war to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. In reality, what the U.S.-led defence forces brought to these countries were death, destitution and humanitarian crises.” It then concluded that “by emphasising self-proclaimed efforts to promote democracy and protect human rights, the West is trying to eliminate dissenting voices and fulfil its geopolitical interests.”

Vitaly Churkin, the outspoken Russian permanent representative at the United Nations, has been equally precise in his identification of the core western aspirations in Syria which, in his view, are decisively geopolitical and not humanitarian in their intent. In an incisive interview with Russia Today , Mr. Churkin said: “You know, humanitarian intervention unfortunately only sounds humane, but the fact of the matter is that any military intervention for whatever reason is inevitably going to cause more bloodshed. And we know the greatest humanitarians in the world — the U.S. and the U.K. — intervened in Iraq, for instance, citing all sorts of noble pretexts, in that particular case, non-existent weapons of mass destruction. What it caused — 150 thousand civilian deaths alone, to say nothing about millions of refugees, displaced persons and the whole dislocation in the country. So, don’t be duped by humanitarian rhetoric. There is much more geopolitics in their policy in Syria than humanism.”

Desperate efforts

So obsessive and desperate has been the drive of Americans and the ex-colonial powers — chiefly Britain and France — to topple the Assad regime that they are hardly averse to using al Qaeda to “liberate Syria”. The presence of al Qaeda was formally acknowledged in May by the U.S. when its Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, told The Guardian that “we do have intelligence that indicates that there is an al Qaeda presence in Syria.”

Several influential Americans have welcomed al Qaeda’s presence in the anti-Assad ranks operating in Syria. Among them is Ed Husain, a luminary of the Council for Foreign Relations — the heavyweight U.S. think tank that is well networked in Washington. He wrote recently that the “Syrian rebels would be immeasurably weaker today without al Qaeda in their ranks”. He then extolled some of the virtues of al Qaeda that had helped steel the Syrian armed opposition. “The influx of jihadis brings discipline, religious fervour, battle experience from Iraq, funding from Sunni sympathisers in the Gulf and, most importantly, deadly results. In short, the FSA needs al Qaeda now.”

Mr. Husain points out that the al Qaeda rank and file in Syria has established itself as Jabhat al-Nusrah li-Ahli al-Sham (Front for the Protection of the Levantine People).

More details are now emerging about al Qaeda’s entrenchment in Syria. The Saudi owned Al Hayat newspaper is reporting that al Qaeda has also permeated the Ahrar al-Sham Brigades. The al Qaeda fighters are the best equipped — the only ones with access to satellite internet browsers that function even during power outages — and have regular access to the media. Unlike others whose access to finances is often choked in Turkey, the al Qaeda units are paid regular salaries. Funding for this elite force comes from “Syrian expatriates in the Gulf countries in addition to Arab and international charitable societies”.

Mr. Husain acknowledges that al Qaeda’s strategic objectives in Syria go far beyond the overthrow of the Assad regime. “Liberation of the Syrian people is a bonus, but the main aim is to create an Islamist state in all or part of the country.” Failing to achieve this maximalist objective, the al Qaeda would “hope to at least establish a strategic base for the organisation’s remnants across the border in Iraq, and create a regional headquarters where Mujahideen can enjoy a safe haven”. The scenario sounds familiar again — the emergence of a Syrian Taliban providing the bubble of protection to al Qaeda, as it plots the next phase of global jihad.

Mr. Husain accepts that the full blown revival of al Qaeda in a post-Assad situation should worry Washington. But he speciously argues that the “unspoken political calculation among policymakers [in the U.S.] is to get rid of Assad first — weakening Iran's position in the region — and deal with al Qaeda later”. But others more familiar with the ways of the Empire contend that the western powers could be quite content if the al Qaeda prevails and Syria disintegrates into pliable mini-states, undermining Iran and paralysing the Hezbollah.

Fighting chance

Despite the heavy onslaught, the Assad government has refused to throw in the towel. The Syrian government has continued to take on the opposition fighters with credible success in Damascus. Aleppo has failed to emerge as another Benghazi — a firm base from where a sustained campaign against government forces can be launched. The Iran-Syria mutual defence treaty has been activated and Tehran has threatened to supply SA-8 anti-aircraft missiles to Kurdish rebels in case Turkey persists in arming the FSA with Stinger missiles. Unlike some of its former friends, Russians and Chinese have not abandoned Syria. With its allies standing-by, the Syrian government might still have a fighting chance of escaping the fate of Afghanistan.

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