Syria – maybe the Ruskis have a point

Syria and Assad are our problem today because of our blunder in Iraq.

By Gary Scarrabelotti

Syria: Bashar al-Assad régime, bad; rebels, good; Russia, wrong; USA, right.

Got it?

Well, no. At least I haven’t.  Perhaps things are more – what’s the word they use now? – “nuanced” than folk from Hilary Clinton to The Economist would have us believe.

One of the gems of Australian journalism is The Australian’s Greg Sheridan. Whenever I spot something from his pen, I read it.  I am almost always better informed for having done so.  I marvel at Sheridan’s wordsmithery and (forgotten art) his rhetoric.

Besides being very well-read, Sheridan’s special gift is that, while never disguising his agenda (it’s a rare, and not very credible, journalist who has none) he is remarkably ready to drop, or reverse, his line when he judges that the facts have turned against him.

A case in point is his change of mind over multiculturalism of which he has been a long time and passionate advocate.

Another is Sheridan’s trenchant criticism of the Afghanistan war.  On this subject I recommend especially his remarkable discussion of Rodric Braithwaite’s Afghantsy and its wrenching account of Russia’s Afghan war. Afghantsy, by the way, is an absolute must read.

If Sheridan were your favorite bogey man, you might find it hard to comprehend how so uncompromising an Americanist and partisan of the Australia-US alliance could become so forceful a critic of the Afghanistan venture. But, then, you would not appreciate the integrity of Sheridan’s vocation as a journalist.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I approached his recent piece on Syria “Portents all bad for Syrian bloodbath,” The Australian, June 14, 2012.

Portents is a typically nice piece of Sheridan writing: economical, fluid, faithful to the complexity of his subject, and executed with a light touch. But this time I felt dissatisfied. And, maybe, given the unusual caution with which he made his judgements, I wondered whether Sheridan himself was entirely comfortable with where he finds himself on the Syrian question:

“On balance, it is right that Western policy seek the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s brutal régime … “

“On balance … “? That’s rather tentative, for Sheridan. But then, as he says, the “dangers are acute”.  Yet despite these, a realist strategic assessment of developments in the Middle East tips the scales against Assad:

“Syria is Iran’s only state ally in the Middle East and the greatest regional danger is the merging Iran-led coalition, which could eventually involve Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Shia minorities in the Persian Gulf states. Depriving Iran of its key ally is a sound objective.”

It’s a strong-seeming argument; but I sensed unease, the beginnings — just maybe — of another evolution in Sheridan’s convictions.

This prospective “Iran-led” Coalition would be little more than a dream if the USA and its allies, including Australia, had not destroyed Saddam Hussein, neutered Iraq’s military power, installed in Iraq a Shi’ite dominated government, and handed a belated and unexpected victory to Iran in its 1980 – 88 war with Iraq. Such are the fruits of “spreading democracy” in the Middle East.

Today we are weighing the risks of letting Assad fall largely because of the blunder of invading Iraq and destroying its Sunni dominated government.  If dictators have fallen from Tunisia to Egypt, and if another is threatened in Syria, it is (in part) because the US invasion of Iraq exposed to their oppressed and groaning peoples the fragility of the dictatorships that ruled a slew of North African and Middle Eastern states.

Also, though there was no love for Saddam Hussein among the rising forces of Sunni radicalism, their hatred for the Shi’ite branch of Islam ran much deeper. In taking Sunni dominated Iraq off the Middle Eastern chess board, the USA invited violent retaliation from the Sunnis and a determination to restore the balance against Shi’ism.

Given that America and its compliant allies have played such a crucial role in setting in motion the Middle Eastern forces that now vex us so deeply, perhaps it is time for us to exercise a little of the prudence that so spectacularly deserted us when we charged into Iraq.

We touched Iraq and look what happened. Would we dabble in Syria to better effect?

America’s ideologically charged — “secular democratist” — imperial ambitions all but destroyed the ancient Christian communities in Iraq.

What weighs heavily on my conscience — and it surely weighs on Sheridan’s — is that in backing America’s ideologically charged (what we might term “secular democratist”) imperial ambitions in 2003 and thereafter, we all but destroyed the ancient Christian communities in Iraq.

Furthermore, in destroying Sunni pre-eminence in that country, we have helped to rouse the Sunnis into converting their communal dominance in Syria into political dominance. The result of that is likely to be very bad for Syria’s 2.5 million Christians who have lived in relative peace under the Assad régime as they had done under that of Saddam Hussein. And, let’s be clear about this, we won’t be winning any Sunni friends by helping them take Assad down. Western diplomatists and strategists just don’t get it: for renascent Islam, we are the enemy.

While I doubt that death and disaster for Iraqi and Syrian Christians troubles the sleep of many an American — or Australian — foreign policy maker, it is (incredible as it might seem to those same masters of strategic failure) a matter which exercises the Russian mind.  Neither, to be sure, as a top level priority, nor or as a motive unsullied by worldly considerations, but, nevertheless, as a factor deeply ingrained in the Russian psyche, especially now as it tries to recover its lost place in the world by tapping into its pre-revolutionary motives for great power plays.

On this subject, I recommend Walter Russell Mead’s “What Russia doesn’t forget” published by The American Interest.

With America flailing and failing strategically, and with the EU imploding – a political and economic experiment no less irrational, and even more fragile, than that of Soviet communism – and with the new Russia, for all its flaws and weaknesses, actually rising, it’s time to factor Russia intelligently into our thinking about the much more dangerous, strategically “multi-polar” world that is now upon us.

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