By Johan Adler
The USA and its European partners will soon have to make a most embarrassing choice: are they involved in the Middle East, Syria in particular, to fight IS and other terror organisations, or are they involved in an effort to effect regime change in order to implement their own version of freedom and democracy in societies where these concepts are mostly foreign?
The spectacle of a US state department spokesman squirming on television in an effort to clarify whether the US welcomes the victory of Syrian government forces over IS in the ancient city of Palmyra, makes one realise how the US has painted itself into a corner in Syria. His counterpart for the former colonial masters of Syria, France, was obfuscating on an even grander scale: “The advances against Daesh (IS) cannot erase the fact that the regime bears the main responsibility for the conflict and its 270,000 dead over the past five years.” Really?
Add threats from would-be leaders like Donald Trump that he would stop accepting any further Syrian refugees and it becomes clear that nothing has been learnt since the beginning of America’s ill-fated intervention in the Middle East.
When I wrote in these pages at the start of the so-called Arab Spring that the result of revolution is seldom if ever a transition to democracy and freedom but rather the start of anarchy, US and some European policy makers were obviously not agreeing. As a result of vocal uninformed public opinion, the West has allowed itself to become entangled in one revolution after the other in the Middle East, despite its failure to achieve anything constructive in Iraq.
Before the Arab Spring, the Middle East consisted largely of a collection of states ruled by dictators who only differed in the degree to which they oppressed their subjects and suppressed free speech, and on which major power they depended for their support. Most of these dictators were regarded as untouchable, since by a freak of history their countries sat astride some of the richest oil reserves on earth.
The first disruption of this cozy relationship between the oppressive states and the major powers came as early as the 1970s, when the Shah of Iran was overthrown in a violent revolution. The USA scrambled to find new sources of oil and allies in the unaccustomed volatile environment which resulted, even going to the extreme of supporting Saddam Hussein in his war against the Ayatollahs of Iran, and embracing the oil-rich Saudis.
Three decades later, President Obama, determined though he had been to extricate his country from the futile sectional strife in Iraq after the fall of Hussein, was drawn into the struggle against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in a continuation of the War on Terror started by his predecessor, George. W Bush, after the 9/11 outrages in New York and Washington. Faced by uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and shortly afterwards in Libya, he vacillated, then bowed to public pressure and became entangled in the various ‘freedom struggles’ in the Middle East, assisting uprisings against the dictators who, while dodgy characters, had ensured stability in the region for over two decades. Several European states refused to participate and questioned the wisdom of these interventions.
In Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya – not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan – the dictators were indeed overthrown, but only in Tunisia has there been any progress along the road to freedom, and even here a very fragile democracy is facing huge difficulties. In all the other states, the results of these uprisings and interventions have been a trail of violence, chaos and, in some cases, total destruction and destabilisation, ironically creating a breeding ground for terrorists.
The fact that no such intervention was deemed necessary in one of the most repressive and foul dictatorships in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, is explained on account of the Saudi enmity of the West’s great foe, Iran. So much for high-sounding justifications of Western interventions.
Then came Syria. Here the Assad regime had been ruling with an iron fist for several decades. Disaffected groups, ranging from small factions within specific ethnic communities to IS with its unspeakable policies and actions, seized the moment and rose against the authoritarian Assad regime in the wake of the, then apparently successful, Arab Spring. Public reaction in the US in particular was frenzied. Caught up in their zeal to make over the Middle East in their own image, the battle cry ‘Fight the dictators and export our brand of democracy’ went up.
Against his instincts, President Obama was persuaded to support this hotch-potch of ‘freedom fighters’. ‘Assad must fall’ became the cry as several European nations were won over to the effort.
Putin, with no such ambitions, had been an ally of President Assad’s for a long time, and opposed the Western initiative for regime change. He was clear in his objective. Russia was opposed to the threat of terrorism that IS presented to the world and to its ally, Assad. Similarly, Turkey’s objectives were clear; eliminate the threat IS posed to its territory and suppress any Kurdish advances towards its goal of an independent state. This despite the fact that the Kurds proved to have been the most effective group fighting IS. But neither Russia nor Turkey discriminated between Western-approved ‘good’ terrorists and ‘bad’ terrorists like IS, and neither Russia nor Turkey had any interest in establishing democracies.
And so, in a strangely ironic twist, Russia and Turkey became allied to the West in its effort to stop the expansion of IS’ power and territorial advance.
Whereas until a month ago the Assad regime had been embattled by the attacks of this strange, uneasy ‘partnership’ between Russia, Turkey and the West, as well as IS and a diverse group of dissidents, the Russian approach of attacking all ‘terrorist groups’ completely changed the situation. Syrian forces made the breakthrough and in the past week, liberated the ancient and strategically important city of Palmyra, amongst other gains.
Meanwhile, as a result of the US-led actions in the Middle East, the ugly spectre of terrorism has been unleashed in the cities of Paris and Brussels, as well as in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and several other under-reported non-Western areas. This is a direct result of the decision to participate in the efforts to effect regime change, rather than concentrating on the elimination of IS and its threat to international security.
The further irony is that, having devastated much of several Middle Eastern countries, reducing Syria to a heap of rubble, the countries most prominent in these military adventures have taken hardly any refugees. Britain and the US have taken only a handful. Due to the objections of their right-wing factions, they are determined to let others clean up the mess they caused. Several Republican presidential candidates have already called for the United States to ban all refugees from Syria.
The blame for the terrorist attacks and the flood of refugees belongs squarely on the shoulders of those who have propagated the arrogant notion that ‘We know what is good for these people’ and ‘We will decide who the good terrorists and the bad terrorists are’.
In fact, in an interview with The Atlantic last month, President Obama admitted that ‘he no longer sees the Middle East as very important to American interests and not amenable to American efforts to improve it’ And therefore now dispensable.
Johan Adler is a South African columnist, a former diplomat and businessman