OPINION: Until its actions triggered World War I, hardly anyone in New Zealand gave a damn about Serbia. Until very recently, the same was true of Syria. Even now, with images of Syria's gruesome civil war nightly smearing the world's television screens, I find myself reacting to the rapidly rising body count with a mixture of pity and frustration. As the angry, anguished faces of the slayers and their victims flash before me, I demand to know what could possibly be worth so much suffering? Freedom? Democracy?
Observing the "Arab Spring's" slow descent into its entirely predictable winter of democratically sanctioned fanaticism, I impotently admonish the Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad's opponents: "Be careful what you wish for!"
Freedom and democracy are probably impossible now, anyway, wished for or not. Too much blood has been spilt, and too many homicidal sectarian passions aroused, for the ballot to be seen, miraculously, as an acceptable substitute for the bullet. The time for compromise in Syria was at the very beginning of the conflict – and that moment has passed. Neither side can now afford to rest until all its enemies are dead and absolute victory secured.
Of all the potential victors of the Syrian civil war, it is of Bashar Al Assad's Baathist regime that the world has the least reason to be fearful. For all its faults – and they are legion – Assad's government is now the only armed force in the country still committed to preserving Syria's territorial integrity and to its continuance as an independent nation state.
Assad's opponents can no longer credibly commit to either of those objectives. Whether its leaders are willing to acknowledge it or not, the Syrian rebellion has taken on the character of a Saudi and Qatar-financed Sunni jihad. Victory for the rebels would dissolve the existing boundaries of the Middle East – thereby unleashing a wider and infinitely more dangerous war into which the whole world could be drawn.
By upholding Syria's rights as a nation-state, China and Russia are, contrary to most Western commentary, making the most useful contribution to the preservation of both the regional and the global peace. It is the United Kingdom and France – both major arms exporters to the leading Sunni monarchies and emirates – that have opted to further inflame the Syrian crisis by bullying the European Union into lifting its ban on selling arms to either side of the conflict.
If the United Kingdom and France end up putting their thumbs on the strategic scales in Syria, the United States will have no choice but to weigh in alongside them. This would result not only in the Russian Federation stepping up its arms shipments to the Syrian Government, but also in the Shia republics of Iran and Iraq increasing the size and capability of their own military and paramilitary contingents (including the Lebanon-based Hizbollah militia) currently fighting alongside the Syrian armed forces.
A fiery crescent of conflict, extending from Iran in the east to Lebanon (and Israel?) in the west, and threatening all of the states to its north and south, will be the inevitable outcome of any strategy which does not take as its starting point the restoration of the political status quo ante in Syria, the disarming of the rebels, a full amnesty for all of Assad's opponents, and the drawing up of a new constitution for the Syrian people – to be guaranteed by all five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
Whether they be English, American or Spanish, civil wars only end when one side decisively defeats the other. Unless it is the West's desire to prolong the agony of the Syrian people indefinitely, its best option is to call upon the Sunni monarchs to cease arming the rebels and allow the Syrian armed forces to re-establish something like order.
That would be the least-worst-case Syrian scenario. The alternative – an oil-fuelled (and quite possibly nuclear) conflagration devouring the entire Middle East – could hardly avoid setting the whole world on fire.
- The Dominion Post