Small World: The larger threat of the Syrian conflict


By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

I’ve visited Syria twice, the last time in 2000. Both times were two-week “study tours;” the first as a member, the second, ten years later, as a leader. Two strong impressions remain with me:

First and most obvious, the country was a very tightly run police state. Hafez al Assad, the father, had run the place for over two decades and it showed. His picture was everywhere. No one would talk politics. In fact, there was not the faintest sign of disorder.

With his son and successor Bashar in charge, things loosened up. It wasn’t New England, but several people complained frankly to me about how the Alewites (a minority off-shoot sect of Shiism) monopolized power and made an alliance with Iran rather than an Arab state like the (then) official enemy Iraq.

My second reaction was that Syria was a wonderful country to visit. Tourism was still getting organized so there weren’t crowds of foreigners. Marvelous thing to see, bargains to buy. The best food in the Arab world. A small country of great potential.

Flash forward to the present day after four years of ruinous civil strife. Syria may take forever to recover. The conflict started with the “Arab Spring” series of uprisings. Syria’s upheaval opened with rather small, peaceful provincial marches. Al Assad cracked down. The opposition hit back and, with funding from Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arabs, threatened the regime.

Washington, having been twice burnt in Middle Eastern wars, sensibly waited on the sidelines, quietly helping the opposition, talking down Assad and refusing to talk to his friends the Russians and Iran. Maybe a quarter million people have died and over 10 times that number have been wounded or rendered homeless. Legions of refugees have overflowed neighboring countries and journeyed toward northern Europe.

Washington thought it could affect the outcome by building up the “moderate” opposition and training their troops. Failure big time: Half a billion dollars invested in training produced half a dozen graduates. Arms clandestinely delivered to these “good guys” found their way into the arsenals of radical Islamic groups who probably hate us as much as al Assad. The most noxious — and successful — of these fighters formed their own state — the Islamic State or ISIL or ISIS — from big chunks of Syria and Iraq. They are responsible for the slaughter in Paris and other cities.

We and a few coalition partners bomb them. So do the Russians, who have moved forcefully to protect al Assad and, not incidentally, their last foothold in the Middle East.

All participants are playing a double game in this conflict. The Sunni Saudi and their rich buddies are mainly concerned about Shia Iran. Defeating Syria would damage Tehran. The Turks, worried about their independence-seeking Kurds want ISIL to keep them pinned down. Washington wants Syria weakened as an enemy of our ally Israel.

I think Russia and Iran are more on target than we and the Saudis. The last change we want to see in the region is the strengthening of a terrorist state. Al Assad has always acted as a barrier to Islamic extremism, often in cooperation with our intelligence agencies. If his regime falls, there will be no barrier. He is needed to provide a transition to a less sullied but secular, anti-terror regime.

After much delay, a peace conference process has gotten started with Saudi Arabia and Iran glumly sitting opposite each other. The Russians have come up with a peace plan involving 18 months for constitutional change (no mention of Bashar). The absent party is the Islamist opposition; will the United States negotiate with terrorists?

Take careful note: The struggle for Syria is much bigger than that piece of geography; radical Islam threatens much of the Middle East and Western interest therein and everywhere. Young people, poorly educated, without jobs, without hope and disgusted with the autocrats who rule them threaten the stability of the entire region.

The Islamic State is but a focal point; the more serious, long-term danger resides in the home countries. A keen awareness of this threat for the fragile Saudi regime has led Washington, I believe, to tolerate or appease its destructive actions, i.e., troops into Bahrain and war on Yemen. If through stupidity or clumsy mismanagement, Saudi Arabia becomes infected with ISIL, we will all be in big, big trouble.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer

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