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Civil War in Syria?

7 October 2011

Civil War in Syria?

By Gwynne Dyer

Back in 1989, when the Communist regimes of Europe were tottering towards their end, almost every day somebody would say “There’s going to be a civil war.” And our job, as foreign journalists who allegedly had their finger on the pulse of events, was to say: “No, there won’t be.” So most of us did say that, as if we actually knew. But the locals were pathetically grateful, and we turned out to be right.

It was just the same in South Africa in 1993-94. Another non-violent revolution was taking on another dictatorship with a long record of brutality, and once again most people who had lived their lives under its rule were convinced there would be a civil war. So we foreign journalists (or at least some of us) reassured them that there wouldn’t be, and again we turned out to be right.

Now it’s Syria’s turn, and yet again most of the people who live there fear that their non-violent revolution will end in civil war. It’s not my job to reassure them this time, because like most foreign journalists I can’t even get into the country, but in any case I would have no reassurance to offer. This time, it may well end in civil war. Like Iraq.

The Assad dynasty in Syria is neither better nor worse than Saddam Hussein’s regime was in Iraq. They had identical origins, as local branches of the same pan-Arab political movement, the Baath Party. They both depended on minorities for their core support: the Syrian Baathists on the 10 percent Alawite (Shia) minority in that country, and the Iraqi Baathists on the 20 percent of that country’s people who were Sunni Arabs.

They were both ruthless in crushing threats to their monopoly of power. Hafez al-Assad’s troops killed up to 40,000 people in Hama when Sunni Islamists rebelled in Syria in 1982, Saddam Hussein’s army killed at least as many Shias in southern Iraq when they rebelled after the 1991 Gulf War, and both regimes were systematically beastly to their local Kurds.

When the American invaders destroyed Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in 2003, however, what ensued was not peace, prosperity and democracy. It was a brutal civil war that ended with Baghdad almost entirely cleansed of its Sunni Muslim population and the whole country cleansed of its Christian minority. Only the Kurds, insulated by their own battle-hardened army and their mountains, avoided the carnage.

So if the Baathist regime in Syria is driven from power, why should we believe that what follows will be any better than it was in Iraq? The country’s ethnic and sectarian divisions are just as deep and complex as Iraq’s, and although non-violent protest continues to be the main weapon of the pro-democracy movement, there is now also violent resistance to the regime’s attacks on the population.

This is not to swallow the Baath regime’s claim that the army is protecting innocent Syrians from terrorist “armed gangs.” The overwhelming majority of the estimated 2,900 civilians killed in the past six months were unarmed protesters killed by soldiers and secret policemen. But some Syrians – especially ex-soldiers who deserted from their units to avoid having to murder civilians – are starting to fight back with weapons.

Time is running out in Syria. The revolutionaries struggle to keep their movement inclusive and non-violent, but people are retreating into their narrow ethnic and religious identities and resistance is turning violent. The most vulnerable minorities, like the Christians, are starting to think about flight.

If it goes wrong in Syria, it could be almost as bad as the civil war that raged next-door in Lebanon for fifteen years: massacres, refugees, devastation. What can be done to avert that outcome? Perhaps nothing short of foreign intervention on behalf of the revolutionaries can stop it now, for otherwise the regime will fight on until the country is destroyed.

Help has to come from outside, and it’s hard to imagine that happening. NATO certainly won’t take this one on: Syria has four times Libya’s population and quite serious armed forces. Non-military intervention in the form of trade embargoes and the like is unlikely to work in time, even if the rest of the world could agree on it.

There is already foreign intervention in Syria, of course, but on the wrong side. The Shia regimes in Iran and Iraq are already giving material support to the Baathist regime in Syria on the grounds that it is a) Shia and b) steadfast in its resistance to Israeli expansion. And there is no point in hoping for timely concessions from President Bashar al-Assad, son of the late, great dictator: he is effectively the prisoner of the Alawite elite.

The Syrian revolutionaries are on their own. They will probably bring down the Baathists in the end, but by then the regime’s increasingly violent efforts to suppress the revolt may well have triggered the civil war that everybody fears. Another six months like the last six months, and it will be all but inevitable.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“This is not…flight”)

Was George Bush a Sleeper?

17 August 2011

Was George Bush a Sleeper?

by Gwynne Dyer

 In spy talk, a “sleeper” is somebody who lives his life in the target country, keeping his nose clean and climbing up the ranks of the local hierarchy, until he reaches a position in which he can be of great service to his true employers abroad. It’s time to inquire if that description fits former US president George W. Bush.

 The question arises because Bush’s actions as president did much more for Iran’s interests in the Middle East than for those of the United States. Consider, for example, a little-noticed recent development in the five-month-old confrontation between pro-democracy protesters and the Baathist regime that rules Syria with an iron hand.

 The Baath Party seized power in Syria in 1963. Since 1970 it has been led by members of the Assad clan – the current president is Bashar al-Assad – and the Alawite (Shia Muslim) sect they belong to dominates the government and the intelligence services.

 Alawites are only 10 percent of Syria’s population, and are seen as heretics by many in the Sunni Muslim majority. The Baathist Party is as corrupt and incompetent as it is oppressive, and Syria under its rule has fallen into poverty and decay. It was bound to be challenged by the “Arab spring,” and non-violent mass protests against the Baathist monopoly of power began all across the country in mid-March.

 The regime’s response has been brutal. Justifying its actions with the brazen lie that the protesters are “armed terrorist gangs,” Assad’s government has sent the Syrian army into one city after another to crush the demonstrations. At least 1,700 Syrian civilians have been killed, and an estimated 30,000 have been arrested. The violence has been so horrifying that even the Baathist regime’s former friends have denounced it.

 Last weekend, for example, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu bluntly ordered the Syrian authorities to stop the crackdown, warning that if the military attacks on Syrian cities do not end, “there will be nothing more to discuss about the steps that will be taken.” In diplomatic-speak, that is a very serious threat, and Turkey is Syria’s most powerful neighbour.

 Most of the Arab world has also denounced President Assad’s regime, including the Arab League, the Saudi Arabian, Jordanian and Egyptian governments, and Yasser Abed Rabbo, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), who said recently that the Baathist regime’s actions are “a crime against humanity.”

 Even Russia and China voted for the United Nations resolution two weeks ago that condemned the Syrian government for “widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians.” However, the regime’s only real ally, Iran, remains loyal.

 You can’t assume that George Bush was in Iran’s pay just because his invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq destroyed that country’s two most serious enemies in the region, the Taliban regime in Kabul and Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. It could just have been deep ignorance and ideologically driven blindness. But how else can you explain this?

 Iraq, almost uniquely among Arab states, supports and defends the Baathist regime’s actions in Syria. Last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki warned the protesters not to “sabotage” the Syrian state. And this Iraqi government was created and nurtured by the Bush administration.

 Before the US invasion in 2003, Iraq was ruled by a rival branch of the Baath Party, led by Saddam Hussein. He was a cruel and murderous dictator, though not significantly more so than the Assad regime in Syria. And Saddam Hussein was Iran’s worst enemy.

 The Iraqi dictator was not working on nuclear weapons, as the Bush administration asserted, nor did he have any links to al-Qaeda, as it also claimed. George Bush had access to the output of the best (or at least the most numerous) intelligence agencies in the world, and they all privately knew that the claims were false.

 Iraq had a nuclear weapons programme before the first Gulf war in 1990-91, but it was comprehensively dismantled by United Nations teams in the mid-nineties, and Iraq was subsequently under a strict arms embargo right down to 2003. Moreover, far from being an ally of al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, the leader of a strictly secular regime, was a target for its assassins.

 Yet the invasion went ahead anyway, Saddam Hussein was killed, and the United States devoted immense efforts to creating a new government. Almost five thousand American soldiers died in support of that enterprise (together with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis). Around half a trillion dollars were spent on it. All that to build a government, led by Nuri al-Maliki, that is a close ally of Iran, and Syria’s only supporter in the Arab world.

 There is a case to answer here, and a Congressional investigation into George W. Bush’s secret links to the Iranian mullahs whose cause he has served so well is long overdue. They could start by figuring out where Bush was really born. Tehran? Tabriz? Maybe the “Birthers” could help the investigators to establish the truth.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 13. (“Most…humanity”; and “Iraq…assassins”)

The Great Islamic Threat

4 September 2010

The Great Islamic Threat

By Gwynne Dyer

People often wind up believing their own cover story. Former British prime minister Tony Blair, for example, is trapped forever in the rationalisations he used in 2003 to explain why he was going along with George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He was at it again last week, telling the BBC that “radical Islam” is the greatest threat facing the world today.

The BBC journalist went to Ireland for the interview, because Blair chose Dublin for the only live signing of his newly published autobiography: a personal appearance in Britain wouldn’t be safe. Even in Ireland, the protesters threw eggs and shoes at the man who was Bush’s faithful sidekick in the struggle to save Western civilisation from radical Islam.

But is militant Islam really a bigger threat to the world than the possibility of a major nuclear war (happily now in abeyance, but never really gone)? Bigger than the risk that infectious diseases are going to make a major come-back as antibiotics become ineffective? Bigger even than the threat of runaway global warming?

Blair has to say it is, because he was one of the people who launched a crusade against radical Islamists after 9/11. Or at least against those whom they accused of being supporters of radical Islam, although many of them (like Saddam Hussein) were nothing of the sort.

Blair has never publicly acknowledged that Saddam Hussein was actually an enemy of radical Islam: admitting it would drain the last dram of logic from his justification for invading Iraq. So he only talks in general terms about fighting “radical Islam”, and hopes that the more ignorant part of the public will think that includes the Iraq war.

Never mind. It’s far too late for Blair to change his story, and anyway the argument about Iraq has gone stale by now. Except for one thing: many influential people in Western countries still insist that “radical Islam” is indeed the world’s greatest threat. Some do it for career reasons, and others do it from conviction, but they all get a more respectful hearing than they deserve.

It depends on what you mean by “radical Islam,” of course. In some Western circles, any Muslim who challenges Western policies is by definition an Islamist radical. But if it means Sunni Muslims who believe in the Salafist interpretation of Islam and are personally willing to use terrorist violence to spread it, then there aren’t very many of them: a few hundred thousand at most.

These people are unlikely to start blowing things up in New Jersey or Bavaria, though they are a serious threat to fellow Muslims living in their own countries. (They are particularly keen on killing Shias.) The vast majority of them speak no foreign language and could never get a passport.

It’s a big, ugly problem for countries like Iraq and Pakistan, but it is a pretty small problem for everybody else. The number of people killed by “radical Islamic” terrorists in the past decade OUTSIDE the Muslim world is probably no more than 15,000.

None of these deaths is justifiable, but it is weird to insist that a phenomenon that causes an average of, say, 1,500 non-Muslim deaths a year, on a planet with almost seven billion people, is the greatest threat facing the world today. Yet the people who launched the “war on terror” do say that, as do many others who built their careers by pushing the same proposition.

They do it by the simple device of warning (to quote Blair’s recent interview) that “there is the most enormous threat from the combination of this radical extreme movement and the fact that, if they could, they would use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. You can’t take a risk with that happening.”

Never mind the quite limited damage that terrorists actually do. Imagine the damage they MIGHT do if they got their hands on such weapons. Very well, let us imagine just that.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union had 10,000 nuclear weapons ready to launch at each other. If they had ever gone to war, hundreds of millions of people would have been killed – even several billion, if it had caused a nuclear winter. And of course the two countries had huge biological and chemical warfare capabilities too.

If “radical Islamists” ever got their hands on a nuclear weapon, it would be ONE bomb, not ten thousand warheads. If they managed to explode it, it would be a local disaster, not a global holocaust. The worst poison gas attack ever, on the Tokyo underground system in 1995, killed only thirteen people, and although germ warfare could be hugely destructive of human life, it requires scientific capabilities that are very difficult to master

Besides, just how does invading various Muslim countries shrink any of these dangers? It probably increases them, actually, by outraging many Muslims and providing the extremists with a steady flow of recruits.

Terrorism, by radical Islamists or anybody else, is a real threat but a modest one. It cannot be “defeated”, but it can be contained by good police work and wise policy choices. It might make it into the top ten global threats, but it certainly wouldn’t make it into the top three. Anybody who says it does has something to sell or something to hide.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (“The BBC…Islam”; and “Blair…war”)

The 2010 Question

4 February 2010

The 2010 Question

By Gwynne Dyer

At the Iraq inquiry in London on January 29, former British prime minister Tony Blair found a new way to defend his decision to join George W. Bush in invading Iraq in 2003: the what-if defence. What if they hadn’t invaded Iraq, and Saddam Hussein had remained in power there?

“What’s important is not to ask the March 2003 Question, but to ask the 2010 Question,” Blair said. “Supposing we had backed off this military action, supposing we had left Saddam and his sons, which were going to follow him, in charge of Iraq – people who used chemical weapons, caused the death of over one million people…If we had left Saddam in power, we would have to deal with him today, where the circumstances would be far worse.”

Blair obviously thought that this was the one argument nobody could disagree with. Maybe he’d cooked the intelligence about Iraq, maybe Saddam actually had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) – Blair admits that nowadays – but if he had left this evil monster in power, we would all be sorry now.

Blair is offering only two choices: either he and George W. Bush invade in 2003, or Saddam is still in power in 2010. It’s really more complicated than that. All transfers of power in Iraq since independence have been accomplished by violence, and Saddam could have lost power through an internal coup.

He might also just have died. We know that Saddam would have survived until 2006, because that’s when they hanged him, but if he were alive today he would be almost 73.

Blair clearly thinks that he and Bush were God’s chosen instruments for removing Saddam from power (and so does Bush). But God, if he exists, has many alternative instruments at his disposal. Some of them wouldn’t even involve starting a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people and turned four million Iraqis into refugees.

Cut to the chase: what would the world be like if Saddam were still in power in Iraq? Much the same as it is now, in all likelihood.

Many people asked exactly the same question in 1991, after the first President Bush decided not to overthrow Saddam at the end of the first Gulf war. The answer is that in the next ten years, until 2001, Saddam attacked no neighbours, built no weapons of mass destruction, did nothing that gave the world reason to regret that he had been left in power.

Many Iraqis regretted it, partly because the United Nations sanctions against Saddam were impoverishing their country. The sanctions had been imposed to ensure that Saddam could not rebuild his armed forces, most of which had been destroyed in the Gulf war, and that he could not re-start the projects for developing weapons of mass destruction that had been dismantled by UN inspectors during the early 1990s.

The sanctions were still working well in 2003. The proof is that no weapons of mass destruction were found, nor even any evidence that Saddam was trying to revive his pre-1991 WMD programmes, after the invaders arrived in 2003 and ransacked Iraq looking for evidence to justify their actions.

I could have told you that. In fact, if you were a reader of this column seven years ago, I did tell you that. It was obvious to any reasonably well-informed person in 2003 that Saddam no longer presented a military threat even to his neighbours. There is no reason to believe that sanctions would have ended if the US and Britain had not invaded Iraq in 2003, or that Saddam would be any more dangerous today than he was then.

But what about the million people he killed? The great majority of those million people died on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and Saddam only “killed” them in the same limited sense that Blair “killed” several hundred thousand people by invading Iraq in 2003.

The people who actually died in the hands of Saddam’s secret police, or in his suppression of revolts like the Shia uprising of 1991, were much less numerous. The mass killings only happened in response to direct threats to the regime, and none occurred after 1991. The number of people killed in Saddam’s jails in a normal year was probably in the low hundreds. He was just another vicious dictator, not a “monster of evil.”

So why did Bush and Blair invade Iraq? Maybe for American strategists it had something to do with oil, but for Blair, at least, it was pure ignorance. If anybody ever explained to him that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the terrorists who attacked the US on 9/11, he didn’t listen.

Tony Blair didn’t realise that Saddam was a pragmatist who had been happy to accept American support during that war that killed a million people, not some hater of the West on principle. He didn’t understand that Baathists like Saddam were the sworn enemies of religious fanatics like the al-Qaeda bunch, each killing the other whenever they got the chance. For him, they were all Arabs; they were all Muslims; they were all the same.

It’s all history now, and maybe it’s not worth bothering about. Except that people just as ignorant as Blair are now peddling us the same kind of nonsense about Iran.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4-6. (“Blair…refugees”)