Syria: “loosening the blood-dimmed tide”*

by

Arundhati Ghose

This article was first published in the August 2012 issue of Defence and Security Alert. 

An anniversary issue gives one an opportunity to step back from viewing the ebb and flow of the current and to take a wider view from a not-too-distant shore, and to try and read the portents of the welling of the sea, the threatening of a tidal wave. A ‘tide’, for some accuracy, has been variously described primarily as ‘the alternate rising and falling of the sea due to the attraction of the moon and sun’ and ‘a powerful surge of feeling or trend of events.’ Today, events in the Middle East in general, and in Syria in particular, is viewed  by most commentators mainly through immediate and bloody events, with different interpretations of these events by countries with differing goals. India’s votes in the UN, with the Arab League and the West in the Security Council and abstaining in the vote in the General Assembly, have been judged from this perspective, reflective of a short or medium term judgement of India’s interests. But what if the tide swells and spreads, what if it becomes a global tsunami and the “Syrian moment’, as it were, becomes as portentous as the assassination, almost a hundred years ago, in Sarajevo? The likelihood is no longer only a probability; there are currents that would seem to make this a near and ‘blood-dimmed’ certainty.

Without going into pre-history, which one would have to if the issues were related purely to religious sectarian rivalries, or indeed only political and ideological ones, (after all, it has long been conventional wisdom that the next world wide war would start in the Middle East)-it would have to be admitted that the faultlines becoming apparent today might be traced to  years more recent, when ambitions for power and control began to be stoked by the sudden and almost unexpected wealth created by the first oil shock in the 1970s and the interventions by outside powers upset delicate balances in complex regional rivalries. What started as diplomatic jostling for leadership  within the Ummah between Saudi Arabia, made newly powerful not merely by immense oil wealth but  by its courting as a power in global affairs by the established old powers of the West, and the Iran of the Shah who saw a revival of dreams of the Persian Empire of old, injected the concept of ‘political Islam’ into international discourse. The use of ‘political Islam’ to oust the failing Soviet rule over Afghanistan, encouraged in part by the Iranian revolution that saw the establishment of a purely theocratic State, engendered the arming and funding of disparate groups, which were led to believe they were in the vanguard of defending Islam against the atheist. As the Soviet Union withdrew, these groups were lauded as ‘mujahideen’ victors of the war for Islam.

Into this fragile situation, the second Gulf  War and the invasion of Iraq led to consequences which are today determining the outlines of the current crises- in the Arab world in general and in Syria in particular. Whether the US could have, should have or whether it ignored the possibility of these consequences is not the issue here: there is no doubt the there were at least three major consequences which unsettled such stability as had existed in the region before the invasion. These were , at a level, the  so-called Arab Spring, the hardening of the Shia-Sunni divide within the Ummah and the  emergence of Iran as a regional power.

According to some  influential Arab commentators, the ease with which Saddam Hussein’s regime was dismantled-with foreign intervention, to be sure, was an important factor in the impulses which resulted in the revolt of the peoples of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya-three neighbouring but very different countries – against the dictatorial though secular regimes in these countries. Iraq had also been a ‘secular’ country, though a Sunni minority formed the elite in power and the majority Shia were ruthlessly suppressed.  The equally ruthless dismantling of the structures of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq by the American occupation forces, turned Iraq into a Shia majority country closely allied to Iran. The introduction of religion, specifically the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood into the governing structures of these countries was also presaged by the changes in Iraq. The new element making the mixture more complex has been the use of the social media when mainstream media faced controls; this has caused concerns in other States, and not only those of centralized States such as China.

All these trends have coalesced in Syria, where the Shia-Sunni divide has divided the Arab world and threatens to spill over world-wide. Turkey, which had envisaged a leadership role for itself following the early days after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, presenting itself as a ‘model’ of a democratic, modern Islamic State, has found its support for the Sunni rebels in Syria being challenged not only among its Alevi (Alawite-Shia) minority- 15% of its population, but threats from Syrian Kurds who have been trying to make common cause with the Turkish Kurds (20% of its population). Syria is reported to have ceded control over several areas in its north to its Kurds, with the latter raising the Kurdish flag over governmental buildings. Turkey has reportedly joined Arab Sunni States like Saudi Arabia and Qatar in funding and arming and providing ‘safe havens’ for the opposition ‘rebels.’ There are credible reports that many of these ‘rebels’ are not Syrian, but an unholy mix of  Sunni  Chechens. Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Yemenis, with groups of al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood among the more organized elements in the otherwise  disorganized Free Syrian Army. It cannot be discounted that the Kurds are similarly supported by Syria and Iran. Shia Iraq has its own problems with its Kurds, but the country has been more supportive of Arab Shia Syria than other Sunni members of the Arab League. Sunnis and Alawites are already fighting in Lebanon with Hezbollah threatening armed retaliation if Syria were to be attacked and Jordan is on the edge.

Syria’s strongest regional supporter is, of course, Iran. The strengthening of Iran is also a direct consequence of the collapse of the Sunni led regime of Saddam Hussein. That the current hostilities between both major sects poses a threat to Islamic unity, vis-à-vis the US and the West for Iran, and from movements to topple established regimes from Saudi Arabia, seems to have been recognized by both countries; the recent personal invitation to the Iranian President from the Saudi King to the emergency session of the OIC, the high level composition of the Iranian delegation, the seating of Ahmedinejad on the right of King Abdullah might indicate some back-room efforts to stabilize the situation. Iran is also reported to have announced that it had a proposal to sort out the situation in Syria at (at the time of writing) the forthcoming NAM Summit to be held in Iran would seem to be a pointer in this direction. However, given that the situation has now several non-regional countries and non-state actors involved, any such attempt might be difficult to implement.

Iran of course faces challenges on two fronts- in the Syrian situation and, long predating even the invasion of Iraq, with Israel, the US and the West over  Iran’s alleged determination to develop nuclear weapons. Today, whether for domestic political reasons or not, Israel appears to be straining at the leash to mount an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities; faced with an impending election, the US, in an effort to restrain such a disastrous step, has tightened sanctions on Iran almost effectively isolating Iran economically. In Syria, the US sees an opportunity to weaken Iran further and has supported the Sunni Arabs and Turkey, even threatening military action in the event Syria uses or even moves its chemical weapons, in addition to other support already being extended to the so-called ‘rebels’. Action against Syria under the aegis of the UN has been effectively stalled by vetoes by both Russia and China. Apart from Russia’s close friendship with Syria, the experience of NATO action in Libya and its fear of Chechen militants becoming empowered to act in Central Asia, the many initiatives taken by Russia would seem to signal a more assertive global role by Putin’s Russia. China has been less active, but has consistently opposed the involvement of outside powers to effect regime change using the UN for military action. Some China watchers feel that China is being cautious , as officially, at least, it has cited the Libyan case; it is possible that it would change its stance once its change of guard is smoothly accomplished in October. Others feel that not withstanding its global stature, there is a degree of nervousness about possible external incitement in its restive provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang. Whatever the reasons, the world is gradually becoming divided as the impact of the trends in the Middle East as a whole but in Syria in particular, starts spilling over outside the region, even into Africa.

The tide has started lapping at our shores; Malaysia has suspended its diplomatic relations with Syria after the OIC suspended Syria’s membership and Pakistan, where sectarian violence is endemic, and which has been seen by many commentators as the epicentre for the export of terrorists, has seen a rise in the hunting down of minorities especially Shias. Indeed, India’s stake in stability in the region has increased manifold.

The Syrian crisis cannot be easily disentangled from the ones facing Iran; if one looks at some of the albeit worst case scenarios, any military action against Iran or against Syria even be declaring ‘no-fly zones as proposed by France, would have major global spill-over effects. The forces that have been loosed would almost certainly spread to territories outside the Middle East. This would also be the case if the perilous geopolitical situation described earlier, continues at the current bloody levels. Taking an overview of the situation, it appears that, unlike other recent crises-Iraq and Afghanistan, the major powers are no longer the major determinant of a possible solution: today, most US positions seem to be taken in the throes of Presidential election fever, tempered into trying to ensure that while Iran can be weakened by a Syrian implosion with the provision of a limited number of arms to the ‘rebels’, Israeli hawks need to be restrained from actually attacking Iran. The UK and France are merely mischief-makers, with little power to act on their own; given the stalemate in the Security Council, they (and Turkey) may try to energise NATO, as in the case with Libya. In the Lybian case, however, the centrality of the West in settling disputes in the Middle East had already started to erode, presaged by the split within NATO on the issue of Iraq. Russia and China may have the veto, but China is unlikely to get directly involved, given its clashing ideological and economic interests in the region and Russia is hardly likely to have the stamina of facing down the West and the Sunni world alone. The crucial countries in a possible solution are Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The forces of extremist groups which were let loose in Afghanistan, have gained in power and ambition. India has been subject to their vicious depredation for decades. There is no doubt that in addition to India’s own economic interests and its expatriate population in the Gulf, the dangers of a Global War of Terror would pose extreme challenges to India’s security, should it, as it is bound to, if the worst case scenarios happen- unless India, having first-hand experience of dealing with these forces, at least tries to do more that merely ride out the storm. One possible direction could be for India to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia- the countries that have the power to limit the stalemate or escalation.  It is just possible that, notwithstanding the public action of the OIC, given the unusual cordiality of the interaction between the King of Saudi Arabia and the Iranian President at the OIC meeting in Riyadh, some deal was negotiated; at the very least, it is clear that both countries would see a continuation of the Syrian crisis as being harmful to themselves and to the Ummah. All India would need to do would be to support the initiative and press for its implementation-on whatever lines agreed to – by both countries. If there is any give on the part of both, and, India could use the challenges she faces at the moment in the current situation, as bilateral leverages for encouragement, other countries, the US and Russia, for example ,could also be asked to support an Iranian-Saudi led solution.

If we fail, there is near certainty that the war will go global- and unlike any of the earlier World Wars, it will be a war without clearly defined armies, State against State, State against non-State actors and non-state actors against other similar groups with no loyalties except to their own ambitions. It will be a war without end.

[*] W.B.Yeats: The Second Coming

“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

About the Author:

Ambassador Arundhati Ghose joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1963. She worked in various capacities in the Embassies of India in Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium and The Netherlands; and as Ambassador of India to the Republic of Korea, Ambassador and Permanent Representative to UNESCO; Ambassador of India to Egypt; Ambassador and Permanent Representative of India to UN Offices in Geneva, and the Conference on Disarmament. After retiring from the foreign service in November 1997, Ambassador Ghose served as Member, UPSC (1998-2004); Member and Chairman of UN Secretary General’s Disarmament Advisory Board (1998-2001); Member from India on Committee for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (2004-2005); Member of Executive Council, IDSA (2004-2007) and functioned for two years as Chairman of its Programme Committee and as member of the task force on non-proliferation and disarmament set up by the MEA in 2007. She is currently Adjunct Fellow at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore and on the editorial Board of the journal Faultlines, New Delhi. The Ambassador has contributed chapters to books and articles in journals and newspapers on nuclear issues, disarmament and has been invited to speak at various fora on these and related topics. 

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