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Politics or the Drumbeats of War

January 25, 2014 at 9:11 am

Will the political conflict in Syria turn into a military struggle?

Following the historic flight of Tunisian President Bin Ali, Arabian Heads of State, in their last words to the angry crowds demanding their overthrow, made sure to pronounce that their country is different. Gaddafi said it first, and soon after Mubarak made a speech where he went on about how his people were united around his “wise leadership”. By then it didn’t matter what they said, because it simply wasn’t true; the free Tunisians were already protesting for Egyptians’ right to freedom, and the Libyans saw themselves lined up in one Arab struggle against western-backed dictatorships.

Now, as the situation in Syria escalates, President Assad came out to assert that Syria is different. Of course, it came as no surprise. For the two main frontiers of the conflict between the popular Arab masses and their “leaders”, namely the realities on the ground, and the media coverage of those realities, where it is sometimes difficult to see through the misty shadows cast upon the true picture of the situation, this announcement was predictable. The international media and the hateful protesters demanding freedom from Baathist Party totalitarianism knew what was coming.   

Thus far, given the marriage of the two parameters of the conflict between the people and their representative international media, on one side, against Arab dictatorships, on the other, means the conflicts have been political par excellence, and any attempts to allow for another factor to play a role in shaping up the sequence of events will lead to a dramatic change to this two-fold equation. And it is not difficult to see that this third element is foreign military power.  

Western powers played the role of a reluctant spectator, unsure which side they should cheer for. In Egypt and Tunisia, after much hesitance, the main question that was put forward was “which side will the military be on?”, clearly, urging the army to be on the side of the people, a people which at times even included a dictator and his historic ilk. But, for crucial reasons, in Libya, western foreign policy changed; the army this time was not called upon to defend its fellow countrymen. Instead, foreign military intervention was yoked on as a necessary part of the Libyan question, and, before we knew it, the brief military NATO onslaught to “weaken” Gaddafi’s defenses, turned the entire conflict into a military struggle. It became a war!  

Aljazeera TV, hitherto inviting sophisticated political analysts and commentators to intellectualize the events that are sweeping through the Arab world, appointed a special ex-Egyptian Army General to give the most specialized military and strategic on-the-ground analyses. Now, there was no room for politics amidst the flowing stream of, we are told, necessary nitty-gritty details of who is advancing further into the vast, formidable Libyan land.   

But, what will come of Syria as the fire catches on? The west again is watching. And so is Israel, a much more important player in this case. A recent report issued by Qatar-based Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies shows that Israel favors Assad to a much-feared Islamist alternative. Obama calls for sanctions, oblivious to the fact that Syria has been under sanctions for decades. Iran cannot dispense of the Syrian gate to Hezbollah and Palestinian resistance, through which much of its strategic significance is drawn. The Iranians, however, are not watching. With its great influence on the Shiite minorities in the Arabian Gulf, where so many abuses of human rights exist, Iran can at any time call upon the “sleeping sells” of Shiite resistance to wake up; hence, exerting tremendous pressure on Saudi Arabia, another key U.S. ally in the region. And, only yesterday we heard of renewed protests in Bahrain, challenging the recent Saudi military presence to quell the previous one. In the face of all this, the west will want to make a “sound” decision on Syria, but this is a proven difficulty.  

Maybe, this time Assad is right. Syria is different. But it is different to the eyes of American and European policy makers, and not necessarily to the people carrying out the protests. Unlike Libya, the west must overstretch the limits of politics in Syria, for any addition of the military dimension will lead to a war that might go well beyond the bounds of the Syrian geography, with catastrophic repercussions in an already troubled region. If western powers opt for military intervention in Syria, it will be but another testimony to the fact that, for world powers, politics is more difficult than war, especially if you have generous funding.

*Yahya R. Haidar is a freelance journalist and researcher in Religious Studies

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.