Sunday, 22 July 2012

Do we need a Prime Directive?

As Syria descends into chaos and anarchy, with the number of deaths mounting by the day, there is growing frustration and unease in parts of the West over what is happening in that strategically-important country and what might happen should the Assad tyranny weaken and collapse.

Some of the more simple or stupid elements of the western media portray the struggle for power in Syria in crudely simplistic terms, The Assad Government (generally called "the regime", a good Orwellian term that immediately subconsciously lables them "the bad guys") are facing a loose Coalition of forces (these are called insurgents or rebels and that tags them as "the good guys"). This was the approach used in Libya last year. Every act of violence, every gain, no matter how small or fleeting for the good guys was lauded and hailed by the on-site media while every retaliatory action by the Government or its supporters was branded in terms of unnecessary violence or an act of terror.

Now, in Syria, we see the Assad Government portrayed as a group of merciless thugs willing and able to act beyond the boundaries of normal civilised behaviour - prepared to use tanks, helicopter gunships and even (shout it out) chemical weapons to maintain control while the good guys are portrayed as plucky underdogs (don't you just love them) fighting for their freedom with only a few guns and lots of spirit.

The Assad Government has its allies, the nasty Russians and Chinese who use the United Nations to stop us helping the good guys by providing air cover. If only we could help - a few airstrikes and the whole rotten Assad Government will come crashing down, Damascus will be liberated just as Tripoli was and everyone will live happily ever after....

It's not of course like that.

Libya has shown that the good guys are just as capable of being the bad guys if they want. Since the death of Gaddafi, there has been a bloody settling of accounts across the country - hundreds have died since the so-called liberation and even the recent elections were marred by violence as centres like Benghazi, Misratah and Zintan seek to build new identities after over forty years of Gaddafi authoritarianism.

Syria has many similarities with Libya. The Assad Government is and has been a brutal dictatorship suppressing freedom of expression and using miltary force as an instrument of terror against its own people. It is a modern construct, existing only as an entity since the end of the First World War and as an independent state since gaining its freedom from France in 1946.

As with Syria, a period of reasonably democratic rule ended in the 1960s with the rise of the Ba'ath Party of left-wing Arab nationalists looking to the USSR for influence. Gaddafi seized power in Libya in 1969 - Hafaez-al-Assad, a disastrous Defence MInister who oversaw the losss of the Golan Heights to Israel in 1967 and an ill-judged intervention in Jordan, nonetheless seized power in Syria in 1970 and immediately purged the Ba'ath Party of all opposition.

This incompetent blunderer by most measures nonetheless used the instruments of repression and to maintain his stranglehold on power and dragged his unfortunate country down a disastrous path. As with Gaddafi, he groomed his son to succeed him and died in 2000 leaving young Bashir-al-Assas to take over in true North Korean style.

I hold no remit whatsoever for the brutal Assad, his appalling wife and his Alawite coterie yet they surely know that if the instruments of repression slip away from him, their own day of reckoning in a new Syria will not be pleasant. So, as those who fought in the Reichstag building on May 1st 1945, so as those who fought on in Libya even after their leader had perished, so do those who hold the reins of power in Damascus know that they have no future once their power has gone. They fight with the tenacity of the desperate and care not if they drag the world down in flames around them.

Why then do the Russians and Chinese prop up this appalling leader and his odious vermin in a way they didn't help Gaddafi? Well, we know the Russians have a naval base at Latakia on the Mediterranean sea which they didn't have in Libya and the Russians have put a lot of money and time into Syria over the years. They believe, not without justification, that all that will be jeopardised if Assad is overthrown. It seems certain any new Syrian Government will be much less co-operating toward Moscow or even Beijing given their previous support for Assad.

Yet, there's no indication the insurgents are a bunch of pro-western democrats. In Libya, I think the West was fooled by the initial risings in Benghazi, a city much more open historically and culturally to European interests. The Benghazi rebels were urbane, middle-class intellectuals who were open to the West - the crowds cheered David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy.

Unfortunately, the insurgents who ultimately won the war - those from Misratah, Zintan and the Nafisa Mountains were a different kettle of fish. Yes, they were grateful for the NATO airstrikes but they were a different more thuggish group as much interested in settling scores as building a new country.

The Syrian Opposition is a nebulous grouping at best and at worst it's a rag-tag of differing groups whose sole common aim is the overthrow of Assad. Many fear, not without good cause, that Al-Qaeda or pro-Iranian elements are closely involved. For the West and especially Washington, the sceptre of a pro-Iranian Government in Damascus, sharing a border with Israel, is a nightmare scenario. Indeed, it wouldn't be fanciful to argue that the status quo would look more attractive than that alternative.

IF we knew a post-Assad Government would be at least moderate, we could all work toward it. Yes, the Russians might lose out but the real prospect of a decisive breakthrough in Palestine would be on the cards. A Government in Damascus more allied to Teheran brings the very real prospect of a new confrontation in the Middle East much closer.

Explaining his actions in vetoing a UN resolution last week, I was struck by the weasel words of the Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin. He droned on about how the Syrian uprising was a purely internal matter and that the West shouldn't interfere. Of course, I strongly suspect that other powers are already interfering - the Free Syrian Army doesn't seem short of weapons so I suspect arms are being funded from other Arab states or perhaps Iran. I suspect the fighters on the ground won't care.

Churkin is of course a hypocrite when he talks about non-intervention. Russia actively intervened in the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia a couple of years ago and has been happy to intervene on many occasions in the past.

Yet Churkin has a point of sorts. If we are happy to recognise intervention as part of realpolitik, so be it. If the shifting sands of power and influence mean Tehran ultimately ends up in control in Damascus it will only be because their intervention was more effective. We can cheer on from the sidelines but unless we are prepared to get our hands dirty, so to speak, how will we have any true influence in the final outcome?

In Star Trek, Starfleet Command's primary rule was something called the Prime Directive which was essentially a non-interference doctrine. The concept that geopolitics could be operated on such a basis seems fanciful and some have claimed that the Prime Directive would prepetuate tyranny and have claimed it is a shield for a form of moral cowardice. Maybe so but the alternative seems to be that a number of countries at different times become the playground for competing philosophies and influence.

The people of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs are probably too busy worrying about survival to consider these issues - the outcome of this confraontation will either be the survival of Assad or his removal. It seems likely under either circumstance that thousands will die.

We're a long way from the utopia of the Star Trek Universe today.

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