On February 3, 1982, an armed insurgent group belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood took control of a substantial part of the city of Hama in central Syria. The reaction of the Syrian regime headed by Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar, was immediate.
After blockading the parts of the city controlled by the insurgents, he unleashed against them the full force of his air force and artillery. For 27 days an unrelenting barrage of fire descended on the city, sparing neither schools, hospitals, public facilities nor private homes.
When the siege was finally lifted, the parts of Hama controlled by the insurgents had been reduced not so much to rubble as to dust. And as for civilian casualties, they numbered between 10,000 and 40,000.
The lessons of Hama were not lost on potential opponents of the Assad regime. For 29 years the regime, where power had passed from Hafez al-Assad to his son Bashar, stood unchallenged.
Then, in March 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring protest rallies, a small group of youngsters held a demonstration against the regime in the city of Daraa. The protesters were few and their action inconsequential, and it could easily have been circumscribed had the regime acted with some restraint.
But restraint was not in its make-up. The young people were arrested and needlessly brutalized, which led their parents to protest, which in turn sparked other protests throughout the country.
Opportunity knocks for Assad’s enemies
In other times the Syrian regime, through the use of sheer, unrestricted force, would have prevailed, but circumstances had changed. In 1982 the United States and its allies were in essence focalized on the Cold War. What happened in Syria was inconsequential, and the regime could brutalize its people with impunity.
Conversely, some 30 years later, powerful forces had emerged for whom if the opportunity to bring down the Syrian regime arose, it was not to be missed.
As the world crossed the threshold of the 21st century, the Middle East had settled into a balance of power that had the potential of ensuring the persistence of a substantial degree of regional stability.
Syria and Iraq were both ruled by their respective branches of the Baath party, which provided for a secular regime based on a strong state sector and the promotion of pan-Arabism. This common ideological background did not detract from the fact that the two Baath party branches were at odds with each other, ensuring that the two regimes would be in a state of permanent confrontation.
Under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Arab majority Shiites were ruled by a nominally secular Sunni regime that was in a state of open confrontation with neighboring Shiite Iran and its Persian population. Then came the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which branded Saddam as a potential threat to the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf region.
Thus in purely objective terms Saddam Hussein was serving America’s interests in the region on two fronts. Not only was he a constant threat to Iran but also, by his hostilities to the Gulf states, he ensured that they would need an ongoing US military presence in the region to guarantee their security.
Viewed in purely rational terms, it was a situation that Washington would not find fault with. But rational thinking was not what prevailed in Washington.
Ideology trumps rational thinking
What prevailed was ideology and the perception, held by the neocons in the George W Bush administration, that ”American hegemony was the only reliable defense against a breakdown of world order.”
With the removal of Saddam Hussein a prerequisite to the “promotion of US values” in the Middle East, the presence, or absence, of weapons of mass destruction was a footnote in what proved an ideologically driven crusade to spread “democracy” in the Arab world.
With no alternative to Saddam readily available, Iraq sank into chaos, only to emerge slowly as a weakened state with a Shiite government that had made its peace with Iran and Syria. Thus the region was now slowly coalescing into an Iran-dominated Shiite crescent extending from Tehran to Baghdad to Damascus with its western anchor in the Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah movement.
For Washington, it was a geopolitical nightmare in the making, and one that had to be pre-empted as a matter of urgency. Thus when the first riots occurred in Syria it was only a matter of days before Washington and its Gulf states allies proceeded to inundate with weapons and an unending flow of cash the various resistance movements that were emerging in the fight against Bashar al-Assad and, through him, Iran.
The pipeline factor: enter Russia
As the hostilities spread and Syria sank into anarchy, the regime tottered and would probably have collapsed but for two particulars.
First, though unpopular, it had a core of supporters. This included the Alawite community, the urban Sunni commercial establishment and, last but not least, the Christian communities, which stayed neutral during the crisis, realizing that they stood to lose more under an Islamic regime than under the current one.
This core support enabled the regime to hold out during the first years of the conflict; it would, however, not have been sufficient for the regime to endure had it not been for another factor: Russia.
Western Europe’s dependence on imports of Russian gas is an issue that, while never extensively publicly debated, is a constant concern of all the parties involved in the energy sector. Over the years there have been several attempts to disconnect Europe from its reliance on Russian energy either by identifying other sources of supply or by creating alternative energy-transportation networks.
These attempts saw a parallel effort in the Middle East to create new pipeline networks, which would enable energy exports from some of the Gulf states no longer to be dependent on sea transit through the Strait of Hormuz. One of these projects, which never proceeded beyond the design stage, provided for a pipeline that would link the Egyptian oilfields in the Sinai with the port of Aleppo.
Another, named “Nabucco,” would have provided for a pipeline that would link the energy fields of Azerbaijan to Austria through Turkey. Russian opposition ensured that it would not be built.
Yet another project provided for a Qatar-to-Turkey link. According to some sources, in 2009 Bashar al-Assad rebuffed a Qatari request to permit such a pipeline to transit Syria. Other sources claim that the request was never formulated. Either way, Qatar emerged as one of the first supporters of the Syrian resistance.
All these pipeline projects shared two characteristics: They required Syrian approval that was not forthcoming, and they were ultimately directed against Russia. Moscow had therefore some very good reasons to intervene on the side of the Syrian regime.
Russian support alone would not have ensured the survival of the Assad regime. But that support combined with Iranian assistance, a not inconsequential degree of domestic backing and the deep divisions of the resistance, ensured that seven years after the beginning of the conflict, the Assad regime is nowhere near collapsing.
Granted, the human cost has been abhorrent and the fact that the regime would use any weapon at its disposal to stay in power was overlooked only by those who had chosen to do so.
Maelstrom of destruction and disorder
Starting with the 1991 invasion of Iraq, it has taken the United States 20 years and two presidents thoroughly to destabilize the Middle East. What has emerged from this maelstrom of destruction and disorder are two broken states, some 500,000 dead, a multi-faceted resurgent radical Islam, and Russia as a key actor to any possible solution in the Middle East.
This is certainly not what Washington’s neocons or Obama’s confused human-rights activists had in mind when they embarked on what is probably the most misguided foreign-policy initiative taken by the United States in recent times.
And while the US today is still the world’s premier power both militarily and economically, all its Middle Eastern venture has to show for itself is a confirmation of the age-old saying that nothing is more terrifying than ignorance in action.