Syria’s many new friends are a self-interested bunch
by Charles Glass
Last week France hosted the third conference of the Group of Friends of the Syrian People, a collection of 107 countries and organisations modelled on the Friends of Libya who cheer-led Nato’s air war in that country.
In France, representatives of the US, Turkey, Britain, France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, South Korea, the UN and the rest demonstrated their friendship in a communiqué as vague as it was biased.
The group urged more economic sanctions, humanitarian assistance to victims of violence and “stronger United Nations Security Council action.” It promised punishment for government war criminals, while neglecting to suggest that rebels who violate the Geneva Conventions should receive so much as a parking fine.
The Syrians are now surrounded by more new-found friends than a lottery winner. Not since the old Soviet Union signed all those “treaties of friendship” with everyone from Finland to Afghanistan has one country had so many new pals.
How did Syria become so popular that almost half of the members of the UN are scrambling to save it? What other country can claim more than 100 sovereign friends? What inspired this rush of affection for Syria?
Where have these friends been hiding for the past 50 years? What were they doing in 1967 when Israel seized the Syrian Golan? What support did they send to more than 100,000 Syrian citizens when Israel demolished their villages and expelled them from their homes? What was their reaction to Israel’s illegal annexation of the Golan in 1981? Have they taken a stand against the 30 settlements that Israel planted on property stolen from Syrians? Are they calling for sanctions against Israel until it withdraws from Syrian territory, dismantles its settlements and permits Syria’s Golan citizens to return home?
You know the answers. So do the Syrians.
Would it be churlish to suggest that Syria’s friends want something from Syria for themselves? George Bush was eyeing Syria when he left the White House, and, as in so much else, the Obama administration is taking the policy further.
On March 5, 2007 Seymour Hersh, whose American intelligence sources are second to none, wrote in TheNew Yorker:
“To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the administration has co-operated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hizbollah, the Shiite organisation that is backed by Iran. The US has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.”
Syria is a house on fire, and the US and Russia have turned up with flame-throwers.
Thus, arms have flowed in abundance to both sides – at least until this week when Russia stopped shipments.
A conflict which screams out for a diplomatic settlement perpetuates itself with outside help, for outside interests.
If Syria’s friends have set out to destroy the country, they are doing it well. Neighbour has turned against neighbour. People who thought of themselves two years ago as Syrians have now become Sunnis, Druze, Christians or Alawites.
The CIA is arming and guiding gunmen near the Turkish border, as it once did anti-Sandinista Contras along the Honduran-Nicaraguan frontier.
To avoid Congressional scrutiny as it did in Nicaragua, the US has turned again to Saudi Arabia. The British are running anti-Syrian government operations from Lebanon. France, my sources say, is playing a similar role from both Turkey and Lebanon. Russia and Turkey vie for influence in a country whose citizens hate them both.
The killing is not only escalating but, mirroring fratricidal struggles from Spain in 1936 to Yugoslavia in 1992, is growing more personal and vicious. No hands are clean. No one, apart from the undertaker, is winning. Yet it goes on and on with each side certain of the justice of its cause.
There are many versions of this conflict. They are all true, just as they are all false. No one accepts the government’s insistence that its opponents are all foreign mercenaries. Too many Syrians in Homs and Idlib have died for the internal dimension of the conflict to be denied.
But opposition claims to have honoured the Annan plan’s ceasefire do not stand scrutiny. They have allegedly attacked security offices, checkpoints, buses and barracks, to cast blame on the government for responding.
They claim further that theirs is an entirely home-grown uprising, even as they receive weapons, training, advice, transport and funding from foreign governments and intelligence agencies.
The role of outside actors is as clear as it was when Britain used the so-called “Arab awakening” to expel the Ottomans from Syria in 1918. Just as those rebels discovered two years later, freedom and independence may not suit their powerful backers.
If the friends’ sanctions, arming of the opposition and dispatch of spies and supplies fail to settle the outcome in Syria, the friends will rely on the armed oppositions’ narrative to demand that the US launch an invasion.
“Whenever we engage in a war or move in on some country,” Edmund Wilson wrote in Patriotic Gore, referring to America’s seizure of many lands from Mexico to the Philippines, “it is always to liberate somebody.”
Charles Glass is the author of several books on the Middle East, including Tribes with Flags and The Northern Front: An Iraq War Diary. He is also a publisher under the London imprint Charles Glass Books