FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Syria and the Dogs of War

by CONN HALLINAN

 “Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war;

That this foul deed shall smell above the earth

With carrion men, groaning for burial”

Julius Caesar, Act 3, scene 1, William Shakespeare

“Blood and destruction,” “dreadful objects,” and “pity choked” was the Bard’s searing characterization of what war visits upon the living. It is a description that increasingly parallels the ongoing war in Syria, and one that is likely to worsen unless the protagonists step back and search for a diplomatic solution to the 17-month old civil war. From an initial clash over a monopoly of power by Syria’s Baathist Party, the war has spread to Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq, ignited regional sectarianism, drawn in nations around the globe, and damaged the reputation of regional and international organizations.

Once loosed, the dogs of war range where they will.

While the regime of Bashar al-Assad ignited the explosion by its brutal response to political protests, much of the blame for the current situation lies with those countries, seeing an opportunity to eliminate an enemy, that fanned the flames with weapons and aid: the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, plus a host of minor cast members ranging from Jordan to Libya.

The results are almost exactly what Russia and China predicted when they warned about trying to force a regime change without a negotiated settlement: an opening for radical Islamists, a flood of refugees, and growing instability in a region primed to erupt.

The war has claimed between 20,000 and 25,000 lives and wrecked havoc on a number of cities, including the country’s largest, Aleppo. Just who those casualties are is in dispute. While it is undoubtedly true that the Damascus government’s use of heavy weapons in urban areas has killed and wounded many civilians, the opposition has carried out extra judicial executions of Syrian soldiers and Assad supporters as well.

“This is an asymmetrical war, and there is a degree of expansion of violations of international law by both sides that seems to be escalating,” says Kristalina Georgieva, UN commissioner for crisis response.

The Damascus government has developed its own spin on the casualties, claiming they are not Syrians, but “foreign fighters.” There is no question that “foreign fighters” are involved, mostly Islamic jihadists from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya, Jordan and Turkey, but most of the insurgents are Syrians. Truth is always the first casualty in a war, particularly a civil one in whch the protagonists are not always easy to define.

The fighting has produced a refugee crisis, that while no where near the catastrophe generated by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq—when four million fled their homes—it has still sent hundreds of thousands of people into neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. At last count the UN had registered almost 250,000 refugees, some 80,000 in Turkey, 70,000 in Jordan, close to 57,000 in Lebanon, and over 16,000 in Iraq.

The uprising has also become increasingly sectarian. Syria has one of the most complex mélanges of ethnicities in the Middle East, although religion-wise it is mostly Sunni Muslim. There are, as well, Druze, a variety of Christian sects, and Alawite Muslims. The Alawites, who have dominated the Syrian military since French colonial days—the Assad family hails from the sect—is associated with Shiism, although it has a pre-Islamic history and is deeply rooted in the country’s western mountains.

According to reporting by foreign media, jihadists are playing an increasingly powerful role in the fighting. “The Islamist groups, which are superbly financed and equipped by the Gulf states, are ruthlessly seizing decision-making power for themselves,” Randa Kassis, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council told Der Spiegel. “Syrians who are taking up arms against the dictator but not putting themselves under the jihadists’ command are being branded as unpatriotic and heretics.”

While the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army disavow the more extreme jihadists, the latter hold the whip hand because of their support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the main source of weapons and funding. The rising number of car bombings is the signature of such al-Qaeda affiliated groups as the Al-Nusra Front. Speaking in Jordan Sept. 9, Al-Qaeda leader Abu Sayyaf called for a jihad against the secular Assad regime.

French surgeon Jacques Beres, a founder of the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders and recently returned from treating wounded in Syria, told Reuters that 60 percent of his patients were foreign fighters. “It’s really something strange to see. They are directly saying that they aren’t interested in Bashar al-Assad’s fall, but are thinking how to take power afterward and set up an Islamic state with Shariah law to become part of the world emirate.”

The surge of extremism is not restricted to Syria. Iraq has been convulsed by bombings aimed at the Shiite community, killing over 300 people between July 21 and Aug. 18. On Sept. 9, almost 400 people were killed or wounded in 13 Iraqi cities. Alawites have been targeted in Turkey and Shiites in Lebanon, the latter a re-play of sectarian attacks five years ago in Tripoli by the Saudi-funded Fatah al-Islam.

While Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, Recep Erdogan, is playing a key role in the war by supplying the rebels, Ankara is discovering that the dogs of war are ranging uncomfortably close to home. Iraqi-based Kurds, who have long fought for an independent state made up from parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, have stepped up operations against the Turkish military, and the Turks are apprehensive that Syria’s Kurds might join in. Turkey’s concern with its “Kurdish problem” might explain why Erdogan has toned down his rhetoric against Syria, though the explanation might be simple politics—Ankara’s involvement in the Syrian civil war is not popular with the average Turk.

The conflict has also damaged the UN, though that is mainly the fallout from the organization’s role in the overthrow of the Gaddafi government in Libya. Moscow and Beijing backed UN Security Council intervention in Libya because they were assured that there would be an attempt to negotiate a political solution. The African Union (AU) had already begun such talks when the French started bombing and the war went full-tilt.

The AU is still unhappy at the US, France and Britain over Libya, and the African organization’s warning that the collapse of Libya might fuel instability in other areas of the continent appears to be coming true. The current war in Mali is a direct result of the massive number of weapons that poured into the rest of Africa following the Libyan war, as well as the empowering of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an extremist groups that played a role in overthrowing Gaddafi.

As intractable as the Syrian war looks, there is room for a political resolution, but only if the protagonists and their supporters stand down. The Damascus government will have to recognize that one family rule went out with feudalism, and that its opponents have real grievances. On the other side, the opposition will have to drop its insistence that there will be no talks until the Damascus government resigns. A zero-sum approach by either side will simply translate into a continuing war.

But this will also mean countries fueling the opposition with guns and supplies will have to back off as well. And those nations that constantly talk about the threat of “terrorism” need to confront the extremists’ financers.

“The US and Israeli obsession with Iran has led Washington to turn a blind eye to the dangers posed by Saudi policy,” writes Anatol Lievan, a War Studies professor at King’s College, London, which “has helped lay the basis for Islamist extremism in Pakistan and elsewhere.”

Other countries affected by the war, including Lebanon and Iran, need to be brought into the process as well.

And, lastly, the role of regional and international organizations needs to be reconfigured. The Libya war damaged the AU, the Arab League and the UN because the political process was hi-jacked by NATO and Gaddafi’s enemies. The UN can play a key role in bringing peace, but not if it serves the interests of one side over the other.

“The Western powers would be well advised to unite with Russia and China in putting maximum pressure on both sides to put up their arms and come to the table. Diplomacy, rather than war, is the only way to preserve what is left of Syria for its hard-pressed citizens,” says Patrick Seale, a leading British expert on the Middle East.

The alternative is death and destruction, floods of refugees, religious extremism, restive minorities, and a divided international community. Such ground makes rich hunting for the dogs of war. It is time to bring them to heel.

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblod.wordpress.com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com 

More articles by:
July 25, 2016
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
As the Election Turns: Trump the Anti-Neocon, Hillary the New Darling of the Neocons
Ted Rall
Hillary’s Strategy: Snub Liberal Democrats, Move Right to Nab Anti-Trump Republicans
William K. Black
Doubling Down on Wall Street: Hillary and Tim Kaine
Russell Mokhiber
Bernie Delegates Take on Bernie Sanders
Quincy Saul
Resurgent Mexico
Andy Thayer
Letter to a Bernie Activist
Patrick Cockburn
Erdogan is Strengthened by the Failed Coup, But Turkey is the Loser
Robert Fisk
The Hypocrisies of Terror Talk
Lee Hall
Purloined Platitudes and Bipartisan Bunk: An Adjunct’s View
Binoy Kampmark
The Futility of Collective Punishment: Russia, Doping and WADA
Nozomi Hayase
Cryptography as Democratic Weapon Against Demagoguery
Cesar Chelala
The Real Donald Trump
Julian Vigo
The UK’s Propaganda Machinery and State Surveillance of Muslim Children
Denis Conroy
Australia: Election Time Blues for Clones
Marjorie Cohn
Killing With Robots Increases Militarization of Police
David Swanson
RNC War Party, DNC War Makers
Eugene Schulman
The US Role in the Israeli-Palestine Conflict
Nauman Sadiq
Imran Khan’s Faustian Bargain
Peter Breschard
Kaine the Weepy Executioner
Weekend Edition
July 22, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Good as Goldman: Hillary and Wall Street
Joseph E. Lowndes
From Silent Majority to White-Hot Rage: Observations from Cleveland
Paul Street
Political Correctness: Handle with Care
Richard Moser
Actions Express Priorities: 40 Years of Failed Lesser Evil Voting
Eric Draitser
Hillary and Tim Kaine: a Match Made on Wall Street
Conn Hallinan
The Big Boom: Nukes And NATO
Ron Jacobs
Exacerbate the Split in the Ruling Class
Jill Stein
After US Airstrikes Kill 73 in Syria, It’s Time to End Military Assaults that Breed Terrorism
Jack Rasmus
Trump, Trade and Working Class Discontent
John Feffer
Could a Military Coup Happen Here?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Late Night, Wine-Soaked Thoughts on Trump’s Jeremiad
Andrew Levine
Vice Presidents: What Are They Good For?
Michael Lukas
Law, Order, and the Disciplining of Black Bodies at the Republican National Convention
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Why It’s Just Fine for U.S. to Blow Up Children
Victor Grossman
Horror News, This Time From Munich
Margaret Kimberley
Gavin Long’s Last Words
Mark Weisbrot
Confidence and the Degradation of Brazil
Brian Cloughley
Boris Johnson: Britain’s Lying Buffoon
Lawrence Reichard
A Global Crossroad
Kevin Schwartz
Beyond 28 Pages: Saudi Arabia and the West
Charles Pierson
The Courage of Kalyn Chapman James
Michael Brenner
Terrorism Redux
Bruce Lerro
Being Inconvenienced While Minding My Own Business: Liberals and the Social Contract Theory of Violence
Mark Dunbar
The Politics of Jeremy Corbyn
Binoy Kampmark
Laura Ingraham and Trumpism
Uri Avnery
The Great Rift
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail