Crisis situations, such as the one Syria and its people have been in for the past two and a half years, force many leaders to make difficult decisions, to put their capacity for withstanding pressure to the test, and prove their true worth beyond the smokescreen of sycophantic propaganda that usually protects them.
Given the significance of Syria in historical, political and geostrategic terms, it was only ever going to be exceptional leaders that would manage to survive such testing times.
Over the last two and a half years many have fallen. One of the first to go was opportunistic French premier Nicolas Sarkozy. He had no qualms about betraying his former allies Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi, despite maintaining close personal and political relationships with them right up until just a few days before they were deposed.
A similar fate awaited Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the man behind the naïve and empty proposal for an “alliance of civilisations” which was as reductionist as the ultraconservative Huntington’s “clash of civilisations”.
Both the notion of an alliance of civilisations, and that of a clash, are equally guilty of simplifying the complex and diverse reality of Arab nations, particularly multi-denominational countries such as Syria.
If we fail to grasp this fact then we will never truly understand what is happening in Syria, because we will be seeing it through the prism of a mentality as colonialist as that of the Western “Orientalists” exposed by Christian Palestinian Edward Saïd.
Zapatero’s vacuous proposal was backed by none other than Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a man responsible for many of the atrocities being committed in Syria today – his support for Islamic fundamentalists has allowed such groups to launch violent attacks on Syria from Turkish soil.
In less than three months Erdogan has done away with the Turkish foreign policy of more than a decade, encapsulated in the mantra “zero problems with neighbours”, in favour of an Islamic and radical neo-Ottomanism.
Now the Turkish people themselves are taking to the streets – their government’s hostility towards Syria being just one of their many bones of contention – to protest against this modern-day Abdulhamid – the fanatical and bloodthirsty sultan of an Ottoman Empire in decline who would end his reign by handing over the Middle East to French and British colonisers. Their infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement divided up the region according to Franco-British interests rather than those of its peoples.
Sheikh Hamad bin Kalifa al Thani, the Emirate of Qatar’s dictator, is also on shaky ground. Sheikh Hamad’s wealth of petrodollars is not only put to such benign uses as financing football clubs like Barcelona, it also subsidises the export of Islamic extremism by funding and arming many of the groups inflicting terror on the Syrian population.
Without any type of election or consultation with political parties, which are in any case non-existent in Qatar, Sheikh Hamad is currently preparing to pass the reigns to one of his sons. The murky reasons behind this decision have never been made public, even on the Islamic mouthpiece that is Al Jazeera, so often used to incite sectarian violence both in Syria and across the region.
To the long list of leaders who will not emerge unscathed from the political quagmire that Syria has turned out to be, we must add US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Both invoked the so-called “special relationship” that has dominated diplomatic links between the two countries since the end of the Suez Crisis in 1956, to announce that they will now begin openly sending heavy arms to the Syrian opposition. In reality, they have been supporting them in various ways for some time now.
The failure of their Syrian allies to make significant gains on the ground has led the two leaders to take this rash step which, as London Mayor Boris Johnson has pointed out, will only provoke further death and destruction in Syria.
Johnson, who understands Syria much better than the insubstantial Obama and Cameron, reminded the two that these arms will pass into the hands of terrorist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, an organisation affiliated with Al Qaida. Such terrorists may currently operate within Syria’s borders but in the future could (once again) commit atrocities in London, Washington or Madrid.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague and his boss Cameron have admitted that the scenario Johnson describes is more than possible. Just like French President François Hollande, however, they hastened to add that they would do everything in their power to prevent arms from falling into the “wrong hands”.
The Obama administration has made a similar comment. In doing so, both governments are acting irresponsibly, not with the Syrian people this time, but with all those for whom their cynical pro-Israeli and dissent-stifling policies have already caused so much suffering.
Such policies may also have been damaging to their own citizens, who have been manipulated by propaganda that masks the complexity of the situation in Syria. As Clausewitz demonstrated, war is diplomacy by other means.
In other words, arms only achieve anything when they are backed up by substantial political muscle.
In Syria this muscle is overwhelmingly behind a government that, despite its many faults, ensures religious diversity in the country by founding everything on the premise that the State and its representatives should be nondenominational.
This is the antithesis of what the Muslim Brotherhood and other political or armed groups in Syria are proposing. Hence why they have never enjoyed wide support among the Syrian people. Two and a half years on, they have managed to bring about death and destruction, but have not reached their political and military goals.
The terrible truth is that for some time now the majority of the violence in Syria has been committed by jihadist groups made up almost entirely of non-Syrians.
This is why Obama and Cameron’s approach is immoral and reckless. If in two and a half years, and with all the money thrown at this loose coalition of fighters that seems to have more links to external powers than it does to Syria, they have not managed to unify all the disparate groups that make up the opposition under a single leader respected by all – they have been ‘led’ variously by Ghalioun, Jatib, Sabra, Hitto, etc. – they are not going to do so now. Their only achievement will be the deaths of more Syrians and further destabilisation in the region.
This is not leadership. It is pure folly, or perhaps an extremely cynical strategy motivated by their desire for Syrians to give up their lives for the “war on terror” that the Americans and British have been unable to win.
Twelve years after invading Afghanistan, and in preparation for a US withdrawal, the Obama administration has just announced that it will negotiate with the Taliban, an organisation it has always previously dismissed as terrorists. What is more, negotiations are set to take place in, would you believe it, Qatar. Now there’s an alliance of “civilisations” for you.
(Translated by Fiona Marshall – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)