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A new kind of war is developing. It is very different from the mass conflict of the First World War when governments mobilised millions of men and vast industrial resources. Wars have got smaller, but are equally and, on occasions, more vicious than in the past. Not all are identical, but armed conflicts in Chechnya, Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya have many traits in common and not only because people in these countries are largely Muslim, with the exception of the Balkans.
Straightforward invasions of another country have become less common, the last being the US and British invasion of Iraq in 2003. Its disastrous outcome has made it more difficult to repeat such ventures even when governments want to. Witness the unexpected but irresistible wave of public hostility in the US and UK last September to armed intervention in Syria. In both cases the political and military establishments were split on the wisdom of engaging in another war in the Middle East.
Wars these days are proxy wars to a greater or lesser degree, and this trend may increase if only because it is more saleable to voters back home. A prime example of this was the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya in 2011 by a Nato-backed campaign in which the Libyan rebel militiamen, who dominated the television screens, acted as a mopping-up force in the wake of devastating air attacks.
Human rights abuses have become a standard justification for foreign interventions and accounts of these abuses may well be true. But media reporting of them tends to be unbalanced, often misleading and occasionally fabricated. In Libya, the well-publicised story of mass rape by the Libyan army was exposed as a fake by human rights organisations. The original excuse for Nato air intervention was to prevent Gaddafi’s forces from massacring the opposition in Benghazi. But former rebels, now members of all-powerful militias, really did massacre demonstrators on two different occasions in Benghazi and Tripoli without foreign governments showing more than a flicker of interest.
In Syria, there should likewise be wariness in dealing with atrocity allegations. Clearly, the Syrian government forces are systematically devastating and depopulating rebel-held areas with artillery fire, aerial bombing and bulldozers. They are besieging and starving civilians in rebel-held enclaves such as Yarmouk Camp, the Old City of Homs and elsewhere.
All this is true. The government is probably killing far more civilians than the rebels. But this may be largely because the government’s means of death and destruction are greater than the opposition’s. The al-Qa’ida type Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (Isil) recently showed its intentions by posting a video on YouTube of its gunmen stopping trucks on a road, asking the drivers to prove their familiarity with Sunni rituals and shooting them dead when they fail the test. The killers never ask the drivers if they are Alawites, Shia, Christians, Druze or Ishmaili; simply not being Sunni gets a death sentence.
The jihadi groups that now dominate the armed opposition automatically kill non-Sunnis, who make up some 25 per cent of Syria’s population. In other words, at least five million Syrians have good reason to fear that they will be slaughtered if the rebels win the civil war. In fact, the number is even higher because Isil and other jihadis have a record of killing Sunni Kurds, another 10 per cent of the population, as well as Sunnis who are civilian employees of the government.
The atrocities of the rebels do not exculpate the government or vice versa. But when politicians such as William Hague and the US Secretary of State demonise only government actions, they give a false picture of what is happening in Syria. The uprising of 2011 against President Bashar al-Assad was started by civil activists seeking an end to a cruel and corrupt authoritarian regime and the creation of a secular, legal and democratic society. But this option has long since disappeared, and for Western governments to pretend otherwise is to foster civil war rather than seeking to end it. Keep in mind that if the rebels do win, the immediate result will be another five or six million Syrians fleeing the country.
Why has the outcome of revolutions that started with such high hopes been so toxic? Since 1999, I have covered Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, and in each case the armed opposition has progressively undergone criminalisation and what might be called “Talibanisation”. The circumstances are not identical, but the similarities are striking.
A reason for the Talibanisation is that only Islam appears capable of mobilising people prepared to fight to the death. This is important because wars are determined not by the number of people supporting a cause, but by the number prepared to die for it. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, national causes were often led by communists, who might begin as a small minority, as they did in the Spanish Civil War, but rapidly expanded because of their organisation and fanatical commitment.
In the Middle East, there is a failing common to beleaguered regimes and their secular opponents that weakens them both. The old nationalist rulers of Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iraq from Nasser on justified their monopoly of political and economic power by claiming that only thus could they make national self-determination a reality. In the early stages they had their successes: Nasser triumphed over Britain and France in the Suez crisis in 1956; Gaddafi took over and raised the price of Libya’s oil in 1973, and Hafez al-Assad successfully confronted Israel in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s. By 2011, however, these governments had turned into self-serving cliques whose nationalist slogans were long discredited and whose corruption delegitimised the nation state.
The mistake of civic activists and non-sectarian revolutionaries in 2011 was not to see that emphasis on human and civil rights did not mean much unless a strong nation state could be regenerated. Nationalism may be out of fashion, but without it gluing society together, the alternative is sectarianism, tribalism and foreign domination. As paymasters, the Sunni oil states of the Gulf set the agenda and it is a deeply reactionary one. It is hypocritical and absurd for Western powers to pretend that they are seeking to build secular democracies in alliance with theocratic absolute monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
The future does not look bright. Once sectarian furies are released they become next to impossible to contain. For all the turmoil in Turkey, it is more of a complete nation state than elsewhere in the region. But then that is partly because a fifth of the Turkish population was Christian in 1914 and, following the Armenian massacres and the expulsion or exchange of the Greeks, the proportion fell to about 1 per cent 10 years later.
People ask why the revolutions in Eastern Europe at the time of the fall of communism were so much less violent than in the Middle East. A less than comforting answer is that the East European minorities had been murdered, expelled or forced to flee during or shortly after the Second World War. The same fate could be waiting for the minorities of Syria.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.