By Jay Holmes
Things have accelerated in Syria during the last six months—“things” such as the death rate and the refugee crisis, which have increased alarmingly. Putting a number on the death toll is not easy. The various rebel forces and the Syrian government may all at times exaggerate or fail to report deaths. However, it seems likely that approximately 100,000 people have been killed in the civil war in Syria. That is about fifteen times the number of deaths that we in the US have endured in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined.
In 2011, the conflict was reasonably described as a struggle between the Assad regime and his Shia backers versus anyone else in Syria. The Syrians are a diverse population with a high percentage of post-secondary educated adults. If the Syrians, themselves, had remained the only folks in Syria who were fighting with or against the Assad regime, they might have formed a passable coalition with which to depose and replace Assad by now.
There has always been a core of Islamic radicals in Syria. However, more educated and sophisticated Syrians who are less amenable to primitive agendas such as Islamic fundamentalism or anti-Zionist crusades marginalized the radicals over time. Syrians increasingly wanted something more out of life than anti-Western slogans and a feeble economy.
That’s where Assad’s trouble started. The majority of protesters in January 2011 were not protesting for or against Shia, Sunnis, or other Syrian groups. They simply wanted Assad gone. Having watched news footage of the cruise missile assault and modest air campaign put on by NATO in Libya, they were understandably hopeful that the West would jump on an opportunity to depose an old nemesis like Assad. After all, what Middle East revolutionary or Western observer’s heart didn’t warm by the sight of angry Libyans cornering Gadhafi?
Unfortunately for the people of Syria, the West had strong reasons to avoid investing missiles and men in a Syrian conflict. For one thing, the US and the UK were disentangling themselves from the morass that had festered in Iraq, and both are still involved in propping up the unlovable Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. Obama was not willing to invest any significant men or material in Syria while still busy in Afghanistan and wondering how Korea and Iran might soon eat up resources. And all of this was occurring with borrowed money from China. The UK was not about to commit to an operation in Syria or any place more distant than the Channel if the US wasn’t taking the lead in cash and dead troops.
A second major factor in Western reluctance to escalate military aid to the Syrian rebels was the simple fact that we have not quite been able to distinguish who they are. Their identity seems to change on a weekly basis.
The nature of the conflict in Syria has shifted dramatically during the last year. Iran does not want Assad gone. Assad is Iran’s submissive and obedient girlfriend that lives next door to Israel and Lebanon. The relationship between Iran and Assad (any Assad) has always been simple. Assad does what Iran tells him to regarding foreign policy. In return, Iran helps prop up Syria against its Sunni neighbors in Saudi Arabia, its Zionist enemies in Israel, and anyone who might get difficult with them in Lebanon. Previously, Iran helped prop up Syria against the anti-Shia Iraqi regime. That particular Iraqi despot was deposed and has now been replaced by a newer, cleaner, more wonderful Shia despot. That change in Iraq has allowed Iran to more easily ship weapons and people to Syria.
However, a resolution of events in Syria would bring the West one step closer to military action in Iran. Because of this, the Iranians, while pledging their everlasting love and ammunition supplies to Assad, hedge their bets by trying their best to co-opt Shia Jihadi types in Syria.
Unfortunately for Iran, and everyone else on the planet, the Iranians are not the only Islamic radical nut jobs acting out their agenda in Syria. With Iraq now in the “Shia camp,” the Wahhabi-influenced Sunni Saudis and their Gulf State allies have more reason than ever to oppose any Shia influence in Syria. To that end, they are backing a variety of Sunni groups in Syria against the Assad regime. Unfortunately, the Saudis and their gulf pals have never exercised much discretion in choosing anti-Shia friends. Al Qaeda, a group of gangsters who pose as “devout Sunni Islamics,” is now easily obtaining cash and weapons for fighting in Syria.
With refugees streaming into their country every day, the Turks have serious angst over the situation at their southern border. The Obama administration recently hailed Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan, as a new pan-Mideast leader, a lion amongst hyenas, who holds equal footing with top Western leaders. But Erdoğan tripped in the shower. He’s now back to hyena status and has gone from criticizing the US for interventionist policies in the Middle East to begging the US to please, please, please, with sugar on top, do something about Assad.
With so many fish to fry elsewhere, and not very fresh fish at that, and no clear sense of precisely who we would be helping, the White House does not want to escalate US involvement in Syria.
If we observe Western media reports on Syria, the theme of the show is thus: Assad in his convincing performance as a bastardly dictator is losing ground to a rebel coalition led by a Syrian-American citizen named Ghassan Hitto. The show on the ground in Syria is less entertaining and far more complex. While Hitto may have significant support from many Syrians, he does not control the various Jihadi groups ranging from Al Qaeda to the Iraqi and Iranian Shias that are fighting there. If tomorrow Assad were to commit his first kind act to Syria by shooting himself, with or without assistance, it is not apparent that Hitto would be in any position to govern Syria.
The view of the play from Assad’s bedroom balcony is slightly simpler. He sees a lot of different groups fighting against his government forces. He sees many of them committing the sorts of atrocities that he expects his troops to commit, not the other guys. Assad sees an eleven-year-old child from a Sunni faction beheading a Shia man. Assad sees a world beyond Syria that would love for him to drop dead as soon as possible. He might now and then click on a YouTube video showing his old pal, Kaddafi’s, final minutes. What he can’t see is a happy ending if he gives in. Assad crossed the Rubicon while asleep in the back of the boat. He woke up one morning and found himself standing on the wrong shore. What this all means is that Assad and his backers are desperate to maintain the struggle. For him and his well-armed pals, backing down now means stepping backward into a grave.
Some news sources are claiming that an Iranian agent has already assisted Assad to that grave. However, no verification has been forthcoming, and the stories can be traced to a single source, so I can neither confirm nor deny Assad’s reputed death. Meanwhile, various fascinating sub plots are playing out in Lebanon and on the Israeli border as the war continues. Those are a tale for another day.
Today, though, for once, the people of Syria and the West find themselves standing on the same side of a critical question, hoping for the same answers. The question is no longer when or how Assad will move on to the great harem in the sky, but rather, how will Syrians wrestle control of their own country from the hands of the many well-armed hyenas that tear at the body of a dying nation? American cruise missiles and Marines can’t answer that question.