FOR TWO years, the US and the EU had basked in the self-righteous glow of having supported a string of democratic rebellions against corrupt, brutal and autocratic regimes in the Arab world. Only recently has it begun to dawn on western governments that they may have made a horrible mistake; that what they took to be a struggle for democracy was, in fact, the cover for a far more grim struggle to snuff out every vestige of budding civil liberties in secular Arab states under a suffocating blanket of extremist Islam. As a result, confusion now reigns supreme in their policy establishments.
A recent example was Israel’s attack outside Damascus on a convoy supposedly carrying missiles for the Hezbollah. Tel Aviv has yet to grasp that the worm has turned in the Islamic world, and the main threat to it no longer comes from Iran and Hezbollah, but from the religious warriors bred by Salafi Islam.
A still more glaring example of this confusion is provided by France, which has sent its soldiers to fight Salafi Islamists in northern Mali even while it is assisting an Islamist-dominated insurgency in Syria. As in Syria, there has been a long simmering discontent among the Tuaregs in Mali, who have been fighting the government intermittently for years. As in Syria, these freedom seekers welcomed foreign fighters from Libya and turned a convenient blind eye to their motives for coming. And as in Syria, their benefactors turned out to have an altogether different agenda.
After clearing northern Mali of government forces, these fighters, who are united under the banners of three extreme Islamist outfits (Ansar al Dine, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Movement for Unification of Jihad in West Africa), have ousted the Tuaregs from power and taken over total control of two-thirds of Mali. This is a descent into medieval repression — poignantly described by the Malian Muslim academic and writer Karima Bennoune in The New York Times a few days ago — that France is belatedly trying to arrest.
If Mali’s fate has provoked any rethinking in France, President Francois Hollande has yet to show signs of it, because he has continued to urge the EU to lift its arms embargo on the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and supply it with anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. But, fortunately, there are signs of rethinking in the US.
This was first triggered three weeks after Barack Obama’s re-election last November when rebels of the Jabhat al Nusra brought down a Syrian helicopter and narrowly failed to bring down a jet fighter with heat-seeking missiles. In the frantic search for explanations that followed, the Obama administration discovered to its consternation that Turkey, Qatar and Libya had ignored its serious reservations about supplying the rebels with weapons that could bring down civilian aeroplanes and supplied them with “at least 40 heat-seeking missile systems”. Washington received this shock only a month after it had learned, from the guest list of a dinner held by the pro-West FSA commanders, that virtually the entire armed opposition was bent on creating an Islamist State, and that the line between a secular armed opposition and a jihadi one, upon which the US and the EU had pinned their entire policy towards the Bashar al Assad regime, existed only in their imagination.
Since then, signs of a reconsideration have been multiplying. Last December, Washington began to consult with the Russians on ways to end the conflict in Syria. The Russians met it halfway by agreeing that if the civil war continued to intensify, the Assad regime might find it difficult to retain control. This paved the way for considering a plan outlined by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi for setting up a transitional government. The key feature of this plan is that, like the one proposed by his predecessor Kofi Annan in Geneva last June, it does not require the prior exit of Assad. Last June, Russia and China had accepted Annan’s plan, but it had been rejected outright by Saudi Arabia and in a more nuanced manner by the US and the EU.
In the media, the first concrete signal of a rethink was the airing of documentaries and news clips that chronicled human rights abuses by the FSA and highlighted the growing jihadi control of the civil war. Last month, NYT published an intriguing news story, very obviously based on an off-the-record briefing by the administration, that an unlikely alliance of the US, Israel, Turkey and Russia, and possibly also Iraq and Jordan, had prevented Syria from preparing its chemical weapons for use against the rebels. While the allegation itself was far from new, and the story contained no new facts to sustain it, its sub-text was that with Assad having backed down, there was no more need for the US and EU to intervene directly in the civil war — a step that they had been contemplating for some time.
These are the first green shoots of reason. The misreporting of an unusually blunt speech by Assad to the Syrian people on 7 January, a hasty condemnation by the US State Department declaring Assad to be “detached from reality”, and a statement by Brahimi that 40 years was too long for a single family to rule, show how easily they can be crushed. Therefore, it is essential to weigh the consequences that will follow from the failure of Brahimi’s initiative.
FAILURE TO find a solution that does not leave a power vacuum in Syria will not only be catastrophic for its people, but also for every vital western interest in a swathe of territory that stretches from Tunisia to Iran. It will, in particular, spell mortal danger to Israel.
The first obvious consequence will be that the Syrian civil war will drag on. Jihadis will continue to pour in from Iraq, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and further afield. Within the FSA, the Muslim Brotherhood contingent will be overwhelmed as completely as the Tuaregs in Mali, who had fancied that the Libyans had come to aid them in their struggle for freedom. As Assad’s forces get exhausted, the possibility of external help from Iran and, surreptitiously, from Iraq and Alawites and Christians in Lebanon will increase. The targeting of minorities by jihadis and the possibility of a wider sectarian war will also increase.
Should victory finally go to the rebels, the future shape of the Syrian State will be determined by fundamentalist demagogues like Sheikhs Adnan al Aroor and Ahmad Siyasanah. The West will then realise, far too late, that it has jumped from the frying pan into the fire.
Should the West try to prop up a secular regime cobbled by it, such as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, it will find itself in another Afghanistan, fighting for a vastly weaker side against a far stronger and more ruthless enemy. This will happen even if Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar cease to supply arms and safe passage to the foreign jihadis, because they will not only continue to receive arms from Muammar Gaddafi’s stocks in Libya, but will have the Syrian Army’s weaponry to fall back on. The jihadis will also have free access to adjoining Iraq, which is largely under the control of the Jabhat al Nusra’s parent outfit, the al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Another defeat for the West, even in these circumstances, cannot therefore be ruled out.
However, this will only be the beginning of the West’s woes because the next low-hanging fruit the jihadis will attempt to pluck is Jordan. This will be fatally easy because Syria and Jordan share an open border. Salafis, who sneaked into the Syrian half of Dera’a and got holed up in Siyasanah’s Omari Mosque in March 2011, will find it just as easy to cross the border in the other direction. And the new Syrian government will encourage them to do precisely that, not only because the road to Jerusalem and the al Aqsa Mosque lies through Jordan, but because this will be the only way for the new regime to rid itself of battle-hardened mercenaries of faith for whom it has no further use.
The foreign fighters are likely to do so even if the new Syrian government decides to send them home because few of them have anything to return to. In Tunisia, Libya, and now increasingly in Egypt, the economy has crashed.
Should a Salafi regime in Syria solve its problem by sending these battlehardened fighters to Jordan, it will upset the delicate balance that King Abdullah has sought to maintain since January 2011 by changing governments and ordering fresh polls. If Jordan also succumbs to jihadis, Israel will be surrounded by its most irredentist enemies. Siyasanah, Aroor and other jihadi preachers have consistently maintained that the ‘capture’ of Syria is only a stepping stone to the capture of Jerusalem and al Aqsa Mosque. Hezbollah and Iran will then be the least of Israel’s problems.