When Two Elephants Fight, It’s the Grass That Suffers.

Susan Rice, US Ambassador to UN voting for a resolution against Assad
“The United States is disgusted that a couple members of this council continue to prevent us from fulfilling our sole purpose here addressing an ever deepening crisis in Syria and a growing threat to regional peace and security. For months, this council has been held hostage by a couple of members. These members stand behind empty arguments and individual interests…..” These were the utterances made by the US ambassador Susan Rice, after the council failed to reach a resolution on the Syrian crisis.  By implication, the US and its allies are saying that the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and diversity. At face value, it is very easy to separate the good willing from the crisis merchants. The US, France and UK among others have expressed their strongest condemnation for China and Russia after the latter blocked a Security Council move for a resolution against President Assad and his regime. But underneath the facade of democracy, it is easy to see that unlike Libya, intervention in Syria may be the final blue torch that may set the region into flames.
 
Unlike Libya, any intervention in Syria will have far more devastating consequences. In order to clearly look into the Syrian crisis, a simple comparison with other regions where regime change has taken place will indicate a scenario that is littered with a lot of ironies and similarities. In Syria, there are lot of stake holders vying for the fall of the Assad regime. On paper, they might be singing from the same hymn sheet; for Assad to go. But that is where the similarities stop. The anti-regime brigade is made up of defectors who formed the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the Syrian National Council, the national Coordinating Body, etc. It goes without saying that there are many cooks here with varying interests and “backers”. That is just the Syrian people and hidden among them is the reported involvement of Al-Qaeda; ready to fill any consequential power vacuum.
 
Russia and China voting YES in favour of Assad
In the background are the usual suspects, together with Turkey and the Arab League in the red corner.  In the blue corner are Iran, Russia and China. The only thing separating these playmakers is their varying interests in the region. It therefore becomes disheartening that the Syrian people have become pawns on the political and diplomatic chessboard. There is an African saying that when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. The world may just be witnessing a new version of the cold war re-enacted in open play this time. It is an open secret that countries like Iran, Syria and Iraq have been the political step children of Russia and China. Russia and China have always played surrogate parents to these countries while Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and more recently Iraq have been adopted by the red corner. The interests in the oil rich region have played a major role in determining the politics at play, as the whole world looks on with eyes wide shut.
 
Turkey has finally shed its identity crisis, after it failed on numerous occasions for acceptance into the European Union. Reports indicate that Turkey is a strong backer in arming the opposition groups in Syria. When Gaddaffi tried and failed to rally the Arab world against the West, he belatedly remembered that he was an African, and therefore turned to the African continent for recognition. With his petro dollars, it was easy to see how he bought his way into the hearts of African leaders to create his own sphere of influence. With a potential power vacuum growing in the Middle East, Turkey is also vying for a piece of the action. With Saddam and Gaddaffi gone from the scene, it is easy to see why Turkey may be trying to be a big team player in the region. Ironically, the Turkish Kurds may be asking for the same diet as their Syrian counterparts; who Turkey reportedly supports.
The American Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton in devastating mood after Russia and China voted for Assad
The situation in Syria is clearly on a knife edge. If reports from the media are anything to go by, you would think that the whole of Syria is united in getting rid of Assad. Contrary to the above, a clear bifurcation between regime supporters and regime opponents has been drawn along sectarian divides; with a majority that is against the Ba’ath regime. Little snippets of TV coverage have shown some support for Assad. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, where uprisings were not military, Syria has all the hall marks of a civil war that is brewing; especially when the opposition is a concoction of armed personnel and unarmed civilians.  What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy? With the Libyan situation clearly etched on the political psyche of the regime, indications are that the demise of Gaddaffi will be a prominent analogy and reminder. This has not been helped by the fact that some opposition parties have been quoted as promising Assad the same fate as Gaddaffi’s. There will be no surprises if Assad decides to fight till the last man standing; and this would be unfortunate for the region and the poor civilians.
 
Russia and China have always been the thorn in the flesh of the American led UN. I call it “American led UN” because that is how Russia and China seem to see the UN; that it is been used by certain members as a cloak to promote and protect their interests. With Iraq and Libya (hitherto Russian allies) supposedly falling under American domination, Russia would be forgiven to think that America and its allies are embarking on the political and diplomatic decapitation of Russia in the region. As if that was not enough Iran, another of its allies in the region is firmly in the sights of Israel and America. Russia and China have maintained considerable trade and military interests with Iran and Syria in spite the age old sanctions.  Any attempt for a regime change would be seen as a threat to their own interests. In as much as these countries would like to see a stable region, if for nothing else but to protect their interests, the opposition from Russia and China should not come as a surprise. When NATO intervened in Libya, the mandate was to “protect the lives of the civilians”; only to see it transformed into a regime change exercise. Russia and China may feel hoodwinked here and hence see any such UN resolutions as another pretext for another Libya.
 
Another aspect of the Syrian conundrum is the irony of the political breast beatings in Syria. President Putin is facing the biggest domestic opposition and civil disobedience of his political life. Like the Syrians, Russians are demanding their own dose of “democracy”.  It is difficult to see how Putin can give tacit support to the demands of the Syrian people yet deny the same pound of flesh in his backyard. Let us assume that Putin is in favour of a change in Syria; but any tacit approval to popular protest at this time could be the most spectacular political own goal ever for him. Russia and china have historical propensity to veto most UN sanctions; except that the veto is double edged this time. With Russia lodged between a political rock and a hard place, there is only one loser here; the grass between the elephants. Russia and China appear to doublethink; the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in their minds simultaneously, and accepting both of them.
 
There is a consensus among opposition groups for a change but until the recent escalation of violence, there was little appetite for international intervention. This is why the doomed Arab League solution was preferred. Now that the people are becoming constipated with violence and with Homs becoming the new Misurata, the clamour for the internationalisation of the crisis has been deafening. It is easy to see how united the opposition parties are to Assad’s regime, but if previous uprisings are anything to go by, it will be foolish to ignore their clear and consequential differences. In spite of the united front, there are disagreements about the need for foreign intervention. Some support dialogue while others don’t. Another aspect of the saga is the involvement of Kurds, who seem supportive of Assad because of Turkey’s support for the “protesters”.
 
Some schools of thought believe that it might be easier to get rid of Assad than to get a unifying replacement post -Assad. There is a potential flash point between opposition in the country and those in exile. As we saw in Egypt, the military or the Free Syrian Army might want to claim midwifery status for the change in post Assad Syria. What happens between the minority Alawite sect, an off shoot of Shiite Islam and the Sunni Muslims? With the security services dominated by the Alawite sect and headed by his family members, it will be foolish not to include a sectarian aspect as underlying in this conflict. While the Syrian regime will have you believe that it is fighting against “armed gangs”, indications are that the participants all have various reasons ranging from political, tribal, religious to class. Looking in from outside, there is no denying the fact that there is a perceived imperialist condiment thrown into this broth.  America may be championing the rights of the Syrians to protest against an increasingly unpopular regime, but it’s ironical that such peaceful protests by the “occupy wall street” brigade have been met with considerable measures.
 
With the Syria saga in apparent gridlock, a period of bad peace which is worse than war exists. Short circuiting the long established principles of patient negotiation will always lead to war, not peace. There is no glory in battle worth the blood it costs. The situation in Syria is so precarious that an all out civil war appears inevitable by the minute. There is no doubt that there is seeming creative urge for destruction. But if the situation on the ground is anything to go by, the outcome will be devastating post Assad. Those who can win a war can rarely make a good peace. After ten years of fighting in Afghanistan, the US and its allies are now ready for a round- the table talk with the Taliban. History has taught us that wars begin when governments believe the price of aggression is cheap. Liberty is a fine art, but the tree of liberty should never be refreshed with the blood of tyrants and patriots. To wage a war for a purely moral reason can be as absurd as to ravish a woman for a purely moral reason. Wars don’t determine who is right, only who is left. As we all pray for an amicable settlement of the impasse, we hope that Syria does not become the new playground for another warm cold war; for it is only the grass that will suffer when two elephants fight. The European Union is preparing a fresh batch of economic sanctions, but history shows that this can only strengthen the state and weaken the people.
Please leave the lights on; it’s freezing.
 
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