Magician’s Diversion: Bleeding Syria to Death

Syria is being destroyed before our eyes. (File)

By Jeremy Salt – Ankara

According to various definitions, politicide can be used to describe the destruction of a government or a specific socio-political group, such as the Palestinians, when it overlaps with genocide. It can be extended to a state, a system and a country. Saddam Hussein attempted politicide by trying to wipe Kuwait off the map. In the 1930s the fascists committed politicide by destroying the Spanish government.  Territorially, the country stayed as it was. It was simply emptied of its ideological content and turned into something else.

The destruction of governments, leaders and values who stand in the way of the interests of powerful governments is common practice. Since the Second World War the assassins have often been self-styled liberal democratic governments. There is virtually no global arena which has escaped their attention. In the past eleven years alone, in the Middle East, Iraq and Libya have been the victims of politicide. Their governments, value systems and leaders might have badly needed change but when change came it was not at the hands of the people but outside governments. Now Syria is absorbing their attention. Like Iraq and Libya, the justification for the onslaught on Syria of the past 20 months is the ‘dictator’ or the ‘regime.’ More plausibly, the real target is the country itself. Like Saddam and Qadhafi, the ‘dictator’ is the magician’s diversion, flourished with one hand so the audience does not see what is being done with the other.

The failure of the armed gangs to overthrow the government in Damascus seems to be bringing the possibility of direct military intervention closer. The US, Germany and the Netherlands are providing Turkey with six batteries of Patriot missiles, to be positioned near the Syrian border. About 2,000 foreign troops will be sent to Turkey to operate and protect the missile batteries, with an unstated number of Turkish troops assigned to protect them. The Patriots will be located in  three southeastern provinces that are strongly Sunni Muslim, Gaziantep, Adana and Kahramanmaras provinces. For security reasons they will not be placed  in Hatay, where more than half the population is Alevi (Alawi), and strongly opposed to the Turkish government’s intervention in Syria, or Diyarbakir, which, of course, is largely Kurdish and opposed to the government for other reasons.

Responding the day after NATO agreed to supply Turkey with the Patriots, Russia dispatched a batch of Iskander missiles to the Syrian military. These hypersonic weapons fly at 1.3 miles a second and weapons experts say they would be more than a match for the Patriots. Building up the specter of Turkey under threat, NATO spokesmen are claiming that the Syrian military is already using Scud missiles and is prepared to use chemical weapons but both these claims seem to be no more than part of the propaganda war. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s Secretary-General, condemns the firing of Scud missiles – without producing evidence that they actually have been fired – but not the very real planting of bombs in the middle of cities by the armed groups he and the members of his organization are supporting.

Turkey claims the Patriots are for self-defense, raising an obvious question: self-defense in the extremely unlikely event of an unprovoked Syrian attack or self-defense against a NATO attack initiated on Turkish soil? While the obvious target would appear to be Syria, the commentator Abdel Bari Atwan has argued that the missiles are being put in place with an attack on Iran in mind. If the US decided to use its air base at Incirlik, in Adana province, home to thousands of troops, for an attack on Iran, Turkey would be exposed to a counter strike. Hence the need not just for the Patriots but the anti-missile radar installation placed in Malatya province earlier this year, which is also seen by Russia as a dangerous extension of NATO’s European missile ‘defense’ shield.

Even if it is Israel which attacks, Iran would assume US involvement and strike back accordingly, again exposing US/NATO bases in Turkey and the gulf to counter strikes. Iran regards the decision to station the Patriots in Turkey as part of general NATO war preparations in the region, aimed at itself as well as Syria. Whether the US and/or Israel, despite their threats over many years, really intend to attack, is the subject of continuing speculation, of course.

If the target is Syria, NATO would probably intervene behind the screen of a ‘no fly zone’, likely to stretch as far as Aleppo and intended to place the entire city in the hands of the armed groups as the ‘capital’ of ‘liberated’ territory. Without the backing of a UN Security Council resolution the unilateral declaration of a ‘no fly zone’ would not even have the fig leaf of legal authority. In such circumstances, the shooting down of a Syrian plane inside Syrian space would be an act of war. The consequences would be so dire that it is hard to imagine NATO proceeding without the tacit consent of China and Russia.

There are no signs that this is forthcoming.  Russia has a lot at stake and if anything, its position on Syria seems to have hardened. Despite the willful misreading of every statement coming out of Moscow in the western media, it has not backtracked on its commitments. It has said all along that its central concern is the integrity of Syria and not the future of any particular government. It has never been committed to the preservation of the ‘Assad regime’ as such. From the beginning it has insisted that the right of choice belongs to the Syrian people and not to the armed groups and their external sponsors.

All along Russia has also warned that it will not allow Syria to be turned into another Libya through a NATO attack. In the coming week, units of Russia’s Black Sea, Baltic and North Sea fleets will be gathering for military exercises off the Syrian coast. US warships have been active in the eastern Mediterranean as well, pointing towards the possibility of a Cuba-style maritime confrontation over Syria if NATO does intervene.

Again, a question arises: does NATO seriously intend to intervene in Syria, or does the stationing of these missiles in Turkey serve an array of propaganda and psychological warfare purposes?

Deciding to give Turkey missiles is one thing.  Deciding to attack Syria is something else entirely. One cannot discount the possibility, but when the time comes, unless circumstances change, so that Russia and China are neutralized, it is hard to see NATO members agreeing on this. Yet, without direct intervention, neither does it seem possible that the armed groups will be able to overthrow the Syrian government on their own.

Thus NATO would seem to have backed itself into a corner, but only if we assume that the overthrow of the Syrian government is the prime motive behind its intervention in Syria. Hasan Nasrallah sees the intervention of the US and its allies as being aimed at the removal of Syria from the ‘regional equation’.  This can be done by overthrowing the government but it can also be done by turning Syria into a dysfunctional state. This is how both Iraq and Libya were removed from the ‘regional equation.’ In both cases ‘the dictator’ was used as the lever to justify intervention. In Iraq the US chose to leave Saddam in place because he could always be used to keep Iraq on its knees. Only when sanctions had run out of steam and Iraq was poised to rebuild was the decision taken to remove him. Bashar is being used in the same way, but this does not mean that the US and its allies want the armed groups to replace him. They are treading their own fine line and adapting policies to changing circumstances on the ground.

In Al Akhbar newspaper the Syrian Vice President, Faruq al Shar’a, recently put forward ideas for a political solution as a way out of the deadlock. Here it has to be said that if the self-styled ‘Friends of the Syrian People’ had ever had the best interests of the Syrian people at heart, they would have reached out for a political solution one long ago,  instead of blocking, undermining or dismissing out of hand every attempt  to bring this crisis to a negotiated end. If there is some reason for Mr. Shara’a thinking that the sponsors of the armed groups are likely to accept a political solution now it did not come through in the interview with Al Akhbar. Indeed, if one shares Hasan Nasrallah’s recently expressed view that the prime objective of the US and its allies is to remove Syria from the ‘regional equation’ then all the destruction of the past 20 months makes perfect sense. There might come a time when these governments will show an interest in a political solution, but for now Syria can be allowed to bleed a bit longer.

If we ask ourselves what might finally drive these governments towards negotiations, one possibility is that the armed groups will finally reach the point of doing of what they have ostensibly been tasked to do, which is to overthrow  the government in Damascus.With the armed groups poised to take over, we might then see  their western sponsors changing tack,  cutting back their financial and armed support (through pressure on Saudi Arabia and Qatar) and clamoring for intervention and immediate negotiations so they can ensure the succession of  their ‘moderate’ protégés, Mu’iz al Khatib and the Doha council.

A diametrically opposite possibility is that the Syrian military will finally succeed in routing the armed gangs. This could also spark a sudden interest in a negotiated solution, with the aim of controlling the process of political transition. An increasingly important element in the thinking of the US and its European allies is ‘blowback.’ Many of the armed groups are as hostile to ‘the West’ as they are to the government in Damascus. With the fallout from Afghanistan on their mind, the US and its European allies do not want Syria to be turned into a new base of takfiri action against western interests and allies across the region. Of course we can’t know, but a gravely weakened Syria with Bashar still in place – rather like Iraq and Saddam after 1991- during a process of transition might end up as their preferred option. Threaded through all of this is the possibility that Syria will just implode, beyond the control of any of the external actors who have done so much to bring it to the present critical situation.

The degradation of Syria is a clear plus for the US and Israel. Needless to say, what is good for the US and Israel is always bad for the Palestinians. Syria has been the visceral enemy from the start. The breakup of Arab states on sectarian lines has been on Israel’s strategic agenda virtually since the beginning and nothing could suit its purposes more than the reduction of the Syrian state to squabbling ethno-religious enclaves. Whatever Israel does in the Middle East, Palestine is always the center of gravity of its strategy.

The central problem for the US and its allies is what must follow in Syria sooner or later. At some point, chaos will stop suiting their own interests. In the abstract an Islamic state presents no problems. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain are governed according to variations of Islamic law but all are pillars of western interests in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt has shown that it has no intention of rocking the western boat. The Doha council is essentially Muslim Brotherhood. However, while it is being prepped by its sponsors as the next Syrian government, the Doha council has scant hope of ending up in the government offices in Damascus, or what is left of them. Having used the armed gangs as a bludgeon, their external backers, at least the US, Britain and France, if not Saudi Arabia and Qatar, now face the unpleasant prospect of them taking over, and then fighting amongst themselves over the spoils. Lakhdar Brahimi has warned that Syria could end up like Somalia. Another alternative is a Taliban-style government at the heart of the Middle East. Fearing the damage that might be done to their own interests, neither of these outcomes would suit the US and its European allies

The line being drawn by the US and its European allies between the ‘extremist’ and ‘moderate’ armed groups is artificial. When Obama declared Jabhat an Nusra a terrorist organization affiliated with Al Qaida, the head of the Doha council, Mu’iz al Khatib, asked him to take it back because of the movement’s central importance in the armed campaign. Its atrocities did not concern him. If slaughtering captives out of hand is terrorism, then Jabhat al Nusra certainly is a terrorist organization, but other groups are fighting their war by exactly the same means. This includes the so-called Free Syrian Army.  The leading armed groups have rejected the authority of the Doha council and expressed their solidarity with Jabhat al Nusra. Some are already busy laying the foundations of a harsh Islamic state. The black flag of Al Qaida is being waved everywhere. ‘Moderates’ are virtually nowhere to be seen.

More than a year ago Syria was deliberately locked into a prolonged struggle with the armed groups. The situation has since metastasized far beyond the simple equations of authoritarian government versus legitimate protest movement or crimes of the ‘regime’ against crimes of the armed groups. In this proxy war being waged by outside governments the wellbeing of the Syrian people is not even a consideration. If it ever were they would not still be doing what they are doing.

Those participants or onlookers who supported the armed struggle in the name of democratic political transition can look forward to nothing more than a Pyrrhic victory. Syria is being ruined, destroyed before our eyes as an actor on the Arab stage, with the west playing the same game of divide and rule that has worked so well  for it over the past 200 years.

– Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He contributed this article to

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