Syria: Why "benign neglect" is wrong?

Asharq Alawsat (The Middle East), UK
June 22, 2012 Friday

Syria: Why “benign neglect” is wrong?

By 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 US 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 neighbours
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
neighbours 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

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 despatched 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 US 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.

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