ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | The Syrian Disaster

The Syrian Disaster

13 September 2013

By Yisrael Ne'eman.

Recently the world is focused on Syria and whether the Assad government used chemical weapons (or was it the Jihadi rebels?) against civilians. The average Syrian finds this discussion to be irrelevant after two and a half years of war and at least 100,000 confirmed dead with unofficial estimates running as high as double that amount. The wounded can be estimated to be twice to three times the death toll, a figure not taken into consideration in international haggling over the Syrian disaster. The vast majority of casualties are civilians. The refugee toll from the war is said to be some 7 million or close to a third of the populace, with two million fleeing to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. The other five million, barely spoken about are "internal refugees" or displaced persons – as if their status was somehow better than those who crossed the borders.

Syrians interviewed by Arab news media and in particular the Al Jazeera satellite TV see the West and America in particular as hypocritical in their approach to the slaughter. Why are the liberal, democratic, human rights activist USA and its NATO allies so distraught about the use of chemical weapons? After all, don't conventional weapons kill as well? Chemical weapons may have killed even up to two thousand people in the 11-14 reported usages but this pales in comparison with the total death toll which may only be fully known when the mass graves or destroyed neighborhoods are dug up when all is finished.

The Syrian conflict is not a civil war but rather an ethnic one, similar to the Yugoslavian explosion of the 1990s. Syria is completely shattered with no end in sight. US Sec. or State John Kerry may have inadvertently opened the way for an agreement with the Russians on removing Syria's chemical arsenal but such discussions cannot be expected to end the conflict. The Assad regime, backed by Russia, Iran, China and the extremist Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah, has no intention of compromising with the rebels or "terrorists" as they are described. Should Syria concede its chemical weapons the Russians will expect some form of reciprocal gesture from the West.

The rebels are not characterized by liberal democratic values even if their spokesmen play the card. Assad's characterization of the rebel forces as "Jihadi" and "terrorist" is overstated but true in the large part. Reports from regions where the opposition is in control of territory speak of the imposition of strict Sharia (Islamic) Law. Parts of the Aleppo region are the best example of the Jihadi legal initiative as reported in the France 24 satellite station news. The Saudis and the Gulf States support these extremists while the US and the West may lean in the same direction but find little in common with the Islamists – obviously they find even less common ground with the pro-Iranian Assad regime. The American interest is to support the Arab Gulf States and secure oil resources. Russia and China are doing the same as far as Iran is concerned and do not want a repeat of the US-European Libyan intervention. Even without the opposing alliances and oil interests Moscow and Beijing do not want further Western initiatives in the Middle East. Russia of course has its own Mediterranean warm water port in Tartus on the Syrian Alawite coast, its last point of anchorage and holdover from the Cold War era. Any Russian concessions over their naval needs are out of the question. Moscow may allow for the removal of chemical weapons but will not endanger their interests as they continue to ship the much more effective conventional arms into the Syrian arena.

Overall one is seeing less of a civil war and more of an ethnic zero sum game. Assad's minorities' regime is in general supported by his own Alawite community, the Druze, Christians and even some Kurds. There is further backing from the secular Sunni elite, many of whom are supporters of his secular Arab nationalist Baath regime and detest the Muslim Brotherhood or any other Islamist political entity. The Sunni clash can be seen as a civil war but is overshadowed by the Islamist - minorities mutual hatred of each other. The Islamist – minorities clash rests on the minorities' fears of any implementation of Sharia Law which will leave them in a second class dhimmi status (Christians) or worse for those considered heretics, the Druze and Alawites. Over the years these same minorities forced secularism on religious Muslims for whom religion was paramount and secular Arab nationalism secondary.

There is little hope after two and a half years of war with no common denominators in sight between the Islamists and the Muslim Arab secularists aligned with the minority groups. In the West there are those who sound the noble horn of democracy. Let's recall that neither the Ba'ath secularists supported by Iran, nor the Sunni Islamists are pro-democracy. Democracy not only means rule by the majority but stands for freedom of religion and defense of minority perspectives and individual human rights. There is no powerful pro-democratic military force involved in the conflict nor is democracy in the interest of any of the factions.

When civil wars end the healing process begins between two sides of the same national and/or religious group. In ethnic wars this is not the case. Ethnic wars in general end in one of three ways:

- Extermination

- Expulsion

- Foreign intervention forcing enclavization and/or mini-states

Yugoslavia is the best example where there were massacres and expulsions until NATO, with grudging support from a very weakened former Soviet Union turned Russia, finally intervened and forced an ethnic parceling of the country into small state entities.

More dire yet is the Syrian case, since the ethnic regions are quite small, the Christians do not have a territory of their own, a religious-secular war is constantly in progress and the West really has no great interest in getting involved even should public opinion support intervention. "Boots on the ground" is fully rejected by Europeans and Americans. One can only expect more refugees and future massacres (with conventional weapons).

Pres. Obama's threat of US intervention if chemical weapons are used has left him dangling in the middle position between morality and "the right thing to do" when keeping in mind American interests and public opinion. On the historical level he is between George Bush Sr. in Iraq 1991 and Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policies prior to WWII. Barak Obama is struggling to uphold American diplomatic credibility and the effectiveness of force projection (either threatened or applied) in deterring today's and future adversaries. At the moment neither is going well although a diplomatic solution to the Syrian chemical stockpile may be in the offering. We will see.

There are two lessons here. First Western values are not for export by force. The days of George W. Bush in 2003 will not be returning and no one will attempt to democratize Syria like he tried in Iraq. Most Americans feel best leaving the Middle East to deal with itself.

Secondly if you are Israeli or deeply involved with the Jewish State one should consider that should there be a crisis, the "waiting period" prior to the 1967 Six Day War is the best indicator of future Western policy. In other words, Israel and its supporters are on their own.