Eight years after the conflict in Syria began, gloomy ‘how did it all go wrong for the West’ articles are appearing. Actually, there was no defeat for ‘the West’. The alternative to the Assad government prevailing was far worse.
‘We lost the war in Syria. What next?’ is the title of an article recently published by the brand-new online media outlet Tortoise, set up by former Times editor James Harding. The premise of the piece, written by Giles Whittell, a former chief leader writer of the Times, is that “we”, ie “the West” lost and that we should all be terribly upset about it. It’s a premise that needs to be challenged.
In so doing, there is no attempt to minimize or deny the fact that all sides in the conflict have much blood on their hands. In 2011, many Syrians had legitimate grievances against their government and in particular against the brutality and unaccountability of the state security services (Mukhabarat). The authorities cracked down hard on dissent, but it is also true that outside powers hostile to Syria did their very best, or rather worst, to inflame the situation. They had no interest in political compromises being made, and encouraging dialogue between government and opposition, but wanted to embroil Syria in full-scale war to suit their geopolitical agenda.
The Syrian government did, to its credit, enact democratizing measures. The 2012 constitution, endorsed overwhelmingly in a national referendum, ended the Baath Party’s forty-year monopoly on political power. Assad also signaled an end to neo-liberal reforms which had resulted in increased inequality and which caused widespread resentment.
But it became clear that nothing they did, short of total surrender, would appease the increasingly salafist-jihadist-dominated armed uprising.
Despite the ample evidence that the so-called ’rebel’ groups the Western governments and their regional allies were backing with weaponry and funding, were only minor players compared to the hardcore sectarian extremists, the drive to topple the Syrian government, which protected Christians and other religious minorities, intensified.
It mattered not a jot that the Syrian government posed no threat to the West. Or that in 2006 the Syrian authorities had successfully foiled a planned terrorist attack by an Al-Qaeda offshoot on the US Embassy.
Britain’s role in the regime change op was particularly perfidious when it is considered that the First Lady of Syria, Asma Assad, is a British citizen and that her husband, Bashar Assad trained as an eye doctor in London. The UK government seemed to prefer radical jihadists taking over to this pair, who in 2002 had met the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
For all their rhetoric about ‘fighting extremism‘, in a ‘War on Terror’, we know from a US intelligence report from August 2012, that the establishment of “a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria” was “exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime.”
The US watched with complacency as the genocidal, misogynistic head-choppers of the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) extended their territory and threatened Damascus, where women smoked narghile (hookah) in the city‘s numerous cafes and Christians freely attended church services.
You don’t have to take my word for this when we have the testimony of Secretary of State John Kerry. In a leaked tape conversation with anti-Syrian government activists in 2016, Kerry admitted that the reason Russia intervened a year earlier was to push IS back. “The reason Russia came in is because ISIL was getting stronger,” Kerry said. “Daesh was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus and so forth…We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened. We thought, however, we could probably manage. You know, that Assad might then negotiate.”
As it happened the Russian intervention of September 2015 was a game changer. The neocons hated it, which is why they tried to portray the Kremlin’s action, which was about stopping IS, and saving multi-ethnic, multi-faith Syria, as boosting the terrorists’ cause. In fact, the Russia policy towards Syria was the one the Western governments should have been following themselves, had they genuinely been promoting the interests of their own people.
Instead the regime-change propagandists continued to push for air strikes on a government that was fighting the very same extremist groups that had targeted innocent civilians in the West. Smashing the alliance between Syria, Iran and Hezbollah was more important than smashing Al-Qaeda affiliates.
It was as if 9-11, 7-7 and other such outrages had never happened.
As the tide of the war changed, and the Syrian government, backed by their allies, started to regain territory, the blackest predictions were made by those who had wanted to see a very different outcome.
In December 2016, ashen-faced politicians warned of a ‘holocaust’ if Syrian forces recaptured Aleppo from the ‘rebels‘. Boris Johnson, UK foreign secretary at the time, called for protests outside the Russian Embassy. The Russians were compared to the Nazis, with no sensitivity to the fact that 27 million Soviet citizens lost their lives in the battle against the real Nazis in World War II. Those who defied the ‘party line’ were traduced.
The Morning Star newspaper was called“traitorous scum” by one MP, when they referred to the ‘liberation’ of Aleppo on their front page.
But a liberation it was. As I wrote in an earlier OpEd: “The ‘holocaust’ we were warned about 24/7 did not happen. On the contrary, there were scenes of unbridled joy when the whole city was brought back under government control. For the first time in five years Christians could attend Christmas Mass in the old city’s St Elias Cathedral. Western neocons would, of course, have preferred it if the jihadists had stayed on.”
In a conflict which has cost the lives of so many, and which has caused so much physical destruction, it seems a trifle obscene to be talking about ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. But, make no mistake, the loss would have been far greater for Syrians and the people of the West had the neocon faction got their way. To prove it, we only have to look at one MENA country where they did get what they wanted. Libya.
In October 2011, after a seven month NATO-led bombing campaign, Muammar Gaddafi, the country’s leader since 1969, was brutally murdered, and Cameron, Sarkozy and co-declared ‘victory‘.
The ‘victory’ meant Libya descending into a lawless hell-hole as rival militias fought street battles in Tripoli and elsewhere. Under Gaddafi, Libya was a bulwark against Al-Qaeda, post-Gaddafi, it has become a jihadist training camp on the shores of the Mediterranean.
The consequences for Westerners, as well as for Libyans, have been dire. In June 2015, in neighboring Tunisia, 38 tourists, including 30 Britons, were brutally gunned down while relaxing on the beach and in their hotel by a terrorist who had reportedly trained in an IS camp in ‘liberated’ Libya.
Then in May 2017, 22 people, more than half of them children, were massacred in the Manchester Arena attack by a suicide bomber who was connected to the anti-Gaddafi Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and who had actually been rescued from Libya by the Royal Navy.
“Both David Cameron, then Prime Minister, and Theresa May – who was Home Secretary in 2011 when Libyan radicals were encouraged to fight Gaddafi – clearly have serious questions to answer,”wrote author and security expert Mark Curtis.
So no, Mr Whittell, ‘the West’ did not ‘lose’ in Syria. The neocon faction did, which is another thing altogether.
By Neil Clark