The trouble with Syria

John Crosbie
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First in a two-part series

During a recent talk in Toronto, the eminent historian Margaret MacMillan made some interesting observations about the situation in Syria, pointing out that it “offers the potential to draw in outside powers in a very worrying way, which is what happened in the Balkans in the 1900s.”

As she also noted, it was a Balkan conflict that sparked the First World War.

The danger, according to Mac­Millan, is that the Syrians will be encouraged by the continuing stalemate, given that America is now rethinking its role as the unofficial policeman of the world.

She expressed concern that if the United States took the approach, “A plague on all their houses, let’s just stay out of it,” that could translate quickly into isolationism.

MacMillan said she finds the mess in Afghanistan and Iraq appall­ing, where so many people are being killed while we collectively pay so little attention, and, of course, it is appalling.

She said that often when people talk about the lessons of history, they’re using them to justify something they want to do. She cited George Bush Jr. as an example, who said history has taught us that you shouldn’t appease dictators, be­cause at that time he wanted to go in and get rid of Saddam Hussein and his regime.

We should pay careful attention to an experienced student of history such as MacMillan.

In the Sept. 7 issue of The Globe and Mail, columnist Doug Saunders  opined that, on a human level, the Syrian civil war is the worst thing to have happened to the Middle East in at least 20 years. It is already more deadly than the Iraq War was, and, in its two years, has killed as many civilians as Iraq’s violence did over a decade. The use of poison gas against civilians has only one modern precedent, which was its use by Saddam Hussein to kill as many as 100,000 Kurds in 1988.

Saunders also wrote that, on the political level, the Syrian civil war has created two million long-term refugees and will likely create a million more by early next year. Those refugees are flooding into camps in Jordan and Turkey that appear to have become permanent settlements, and into Lebanon, where they are being received by the public as the Palestinians were a generation ago: as an unwelcome and unwanted menace.

Saunders suggests they’ll stay displaced for a very long time, perhaps forever.

He says the war has turned the region upside down and badly damaged the often opposing ambitions of Iran, Qatar and Turkey.

In the same issue of The Globe and Mail, experienced columnist Jeffrey Simpson considers what policy should be adopted by the great powers — such as the U.S., the U.K., Germany and Canada — and suggests that when it comes to the civil war in Syria, there are many murky uncertainties.

His view was that the U.S. and Canada may be about to agree on some intervention, but that these countries have only “the vaguest of ideas of what intervention will or should bring.”

He sensibly suggests that “a few U.S. missile strikes will not cut it.”

That might be justified as reprisals for the use of chemical weapons, but “limited use of force will not change the balance in the war,” Simpson writes.

Indeed, nothing less than repeated strikes would have any prospect of tilting the war in any serious way.

What the Americans seek is a political solution, but how one might be achieved is not clear.

What the U.S. has in mind is obviously at variance with what the Russians want when they preach a political solution. The Americans want one without President Bashar al-Assad; the Russians want one with him.

As Simpson notes, unless there is a clear winner of the war, a political solution has to require a compromise in a society that is wounded by decades of repression, defined by desires for vengeance and driven by sectarian divides among Shiites, Sunnis and Alawites, the latter being the smallest of the three groups, and  from which al-Assad’s family and his staunchest supporters come.

There are also external forces using Syria as a battleground to suit their interests, including the Iranians, Hezbollah from Lebanon and al-Qaida fighters.

Neither Syria’s domestic nor external players are known for compromising or building democratic institutions, and in the whole area of the Middle East, grabbing power and holding it rather than arranging for its transfer defines the political system.

As Simpson notes, there, “Politics is all or nothing.”

When discussing a new political system that might be imposed by the rebels in the civil war, a difficulty is that the rebels are bitterly divided among themselves. While there are some moderates who say they want to topple the regime to create some form of democratic government, other groups are Sunni militants, some of the al-Qaida variety, as well as political gangs of unknown political persuasion and various fanatic Muslim groups.

The Sunni militants would likely try to impose Sharia law and extreme Muslim practices and would likely, if Iraq provides any indication, violently attack Shiites and Alawites.

Simpson’s conclusion is that if weapons are provided to the moderates, many of them will fall into the hands of the militants, which would create great difficulty.

As far as political solutions are concerned, he observes, it is difficult to see how one can be reached since the Americans want one without al-Assad and the Russians want one with him.

If the history of Syria and the Middle East is any indication — certainly since the Second World War — and based on how the present dictator’s family has governed the country and treated anyone who opposes them internally, it is obvious that the successors to the Alawite government would soon turn to oppressing the Alawites and their  allies. Because for many years now all those who are not members of the coalition led by the current dictator’s father have been treated in a harsh manner.

In considering all the points made by these experienced observ­ers of national and international affairs, you can’t help but feel a great deal of sympathy for U.S. President Barack Obama.

Next week: Obama’s conundrum

John Crosbie welcomes your feedback

by email at

Organizations: Globe and Mail, Al-Qaida, Hezbollah

Geographic location: United States, Syria, Iraq Middle East Balkan Afghanistan Turkey Lebanon Canada Jordan Iran Qatar Germany

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