Last Updated: Fri Jun 22, 2012 12:21 pm (KSA) 09:21 am (GMT)

Syria: Why ‘benign neglect’ is wrong?

Amir Taheri

Over the past few week a new group has joined the chorus of apologists for President Bashar al-Assad. It consists of Israeli and/or pro-Israel commentators in the West, especially the United States.
To be fair, almost all agree that the Assad regime is one of the most vicious produced by Arab despots in modern times.

And, yet, they insist that Western democracies have no interest in helping anti-Assad forces win power.

What they propose is a new version of “benign neglect”: Western democracies should sit back and wait for the struggle in Syria to run its course.

The party of “benign neglect” offers four arguments why Western democracies, and the U.S. in particular, have no interest in regime change in Syria.

The first is that Assad’s demise would bring to power another regime hostile to Western interests.

The problem with this argument is that Syria already has a regime that is hostile to Western values and interests. Without comprehensive support from the Islamic Republic in Tehran and the neo-Cold War regime in Moscow, Assad would not last very long.

There was a time that the Syrian regime enjoyed a measure of independence that enabled it to maintain working relations with the West and Arab nations. That independence no longer exists. Anyone going through the Iranian media would quickly conclude that Syria’s strategic options are now determined in Tehran, not in Damascus.

The second argument is that if Assad falls his place could be taken by Islamists who would start persecuting Syria’s religious and ethnic minorities, especially the 1.8 million-strong Christian community.

There is, however, no evidence to back that assertion.

Syrian Christians are as active in the struggle for freedom as other communities. Furthermore, the popular uprising has developed its own leadership alongside and beyond traditional Islamist networks that had fought the Assad regime for decades. The experience of other “Arab Spring” countries shows that, at this moment in time, no Islamist party is capable of imposing a new dictatorship.

The third argument is that the Assad regime has served Israel’s security interests for decades and that a new regime in Damascus, especially if dominated by Islamists, might pose a threat to the Jewish state.

That argument is equally open to question.

To start with, none of the wars Israel fought against Arab neighbors was initiated by an Islamist regime. All were provoked by secular regimes dominated by the military. Even the two mini-wars in Lebanon and Gaza were not started by Hezbollah and Hamas, two Islamist groups, but by Israel. The three-decades long guerrilla war waged by Palestinians against Israel before the Oslo accord was conducted by leftist, often anti-religion, groups led by people like Yasser Arafat and George Habash.

Israel will never achieve its dream “security” unless it persuades its neighbors to accept it as part of their geopolitical habitat. Only regimes backed by their people could contemplate such an acceptance.

The whole thing looks even more problematic when we remember that the Assad regime is now beholden to Tehran where the leadership speaks of “wiping Israel off the map.”

In any case, claiming that the continued carnage of civilians in Syria is good for Israel could hardly be regarded as a compliment to the Jewish state.

The fourth argument is based on the respectable, but seldom respected, principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries.

That principle would make sense in the case of countries where the government is not at war against its own people.

In Syria’s case, foreign intervention is already taking place.

There is no evidence that Iranian troops are directly involved in the current fighting in Syria. But there is ample evidence that hundreds of Iranian military “advisors” are present in Syria to provide training in the use of materiel and help with command and control systems. Iran may have also dispatched some of its Lebanese Hezbollah units to fight alongside pro-Assad elements in Syria.

More importantly, perhaps, Russia has just sent a naval task force to Tartus with plans to station hundreds of marines on Syrian soil in the name of protecting Russian citizens.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is evidence that fighters from several Arab countries, notably Iraq, may be involved in support of anti-Assad units.

None of these arguments are new.

What ties them together is the belief held by all imperial powers that their interests in the distant chunks of the empire are best served by minorities. Rome raised its legions from among Frankish and Germanic tribes on the fringes of the empire. The Ottomans recruited from among Alawite and Druze communities while letting Armenians and Jews handle their commerce. The British in India built armies with recruits from among Muslim and Sikh minorities, especially in Punjab and the Northwest Frontier. In Algeria, the French favoured the Kabyle, as troops and NCOs.

Today, however, the U.S. and other Western democracies cannot operate as old imperial powers. They cannot claim that majority rule is good for them but bad for others. Why should Syrians be denied what Americans and Western Europeans regard as a human right?

To sit back and watch the massacre in Syria is morally wrong and politically absurd. Even in terms of Realpolitik it is self-defeating.

The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in Asharq Al Awsat on June. 21, 2012

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