I have just returned from spending some time with the rebel “army” in Syria, and if reports from around the world are to be believed I should be a fully-fledged jihadi warrior by now.
Peter Oborne, in the Sunday Telegraph, is the latest and as you would expect most cogent commentator yet arguing that Western support for the opposition to President Assad is profoundly flawed. It has made us bedfellows with al-Qaeda, he says, and he cites the current violence in Libya as evidence of the disaster that could lie in wait. Not only al-Qaeda but other foreign extremist Islamist elements have probably already infiltrated Syria, he adds.
For evidence of al-Qaeda’s involvement, he quotes the US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, who said recently that two bomb attacks in Damascus, widely claimed by rebels including recent defectors to have been staged by the regime, “had all the earmarks of an al-Qaeda attack”. All doubt has thus ended, Oborne says. “It’s official. Al-Qaeda is acknowledged as an ally of Britain and America in our desire to overturn the Syrian government.”
But it’s all pretty flimsy, isn’t it? Leaving aside the intelligence, National or otherwise, of a Washington insider who doesn’t know the difference between an earmark and a hallmark, just because something looks like an al-Qaeda attack doesn’t mean it is one, particularly if the accusation is that the Syrian regime has dressed it up to look like one.
More importantly, as Oborne himself says later, these revolutions are complicated, and even if al-Qaeda is bombing Damascus it isn’t necessarily the case that it is seeking the overthrow of President Assad. There has been plenty of cross-border flow of militants between Iraq and Syria over the years (as Clapper knows full well), which raises the question as to why al-Qaeda has only started attacking now?
The reality is that, as The Telegraph has reported consistently in recent years, there is growing evidence of collaboration between the Iranian government, Assad’s backers, and al-Qaeda, some of whose members (including Bin Ladens) have been “guests” of Tehran since fleeing Afghanistan in 2001. Their precise role (prisoners? guests with limited movement? refugees? friends?) has certainly fluctuated. But there is no doubt that if the Assad regime falls, both Iran and al-Qaeda have a similar interest, in preventing the assumption of power by a stable, pro-Western government; even (or especially, perhaps) if it is dominated by the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood or their ilk. If the bombs were al-Qaeda, they were not a mark of support for the West, but a warning.
As for the other forebodings of doom, the Islamist militias, the chaos in Libya, and so on, which is a recurrent theme of scepticism about the Arab Spring, all one can say to Oborne and the others is that you may be right but you don’t have anywhere near the evidence to justify your certainty. It would be foolish to argue that the tidal wave of change across the Middle East does not carry with it profound dangers. But that does not mean we should stand aside and hold our noses, still less actively oppose it. Engagement, including taking each case as it comes, is the only responsible policy. It was precisely the sweeping generalisation of American policy under the second President Bush, where so much was dictated by the theories and prejudices of those who were not deeply connected to the societies involved, that turned his ventures into such disasters.
In Syria, I met hundreds of anti-regime activists and soldiers. The instinctive sectarianism was deeply worrying – the word “Sunni” was used interchangeably with “Muslim” (the implication being that Alawites are not). While nearly everyone I spoke to was devout, the political views and attitudes to the West ranged widely. However, the most powerful view – the one that had heads nodding – was a wistful account from a father of a “martyr” who said he had grown up thinking his country would be like France (the old colonial master). This was Syria’s last chance at a “French revolution”, he said, which would affirm Syria’s place in Mediterranean world. He specifically rejected the “Saudi-isation” of Syria. Oborne talks about Saudi influence with the revolution (which is certainly not felt in terms of cash and weapons supplies where I was), but of course it is the hereditary dictatorship and cronyism of the Assad family that is most Gulf-like. Unlike the Gulf, or Libya for that matter, Syrians I spoke to all ackowledge the pluralism of their society. It may be that some malign force will hijack the revolution. But this is not Iran of 1979 – the people who would have to be hi-jacked all have guns.
The rebels may have been lying to me, of course: I cannot know for certain. When I asked if there were any foreign fighters in their ranks (at least a thousand strong, from my estimate across the region I reported from, and 3,000 full- and part-time, according to their own account) they looked surprised, and after consulting among themselves said yes, there were four Lebanese with relations who had joined in, and a Kuwaiti medic volunteer. That was it. When they said there were no others, they were not defensive, but regretful that they had been abandoned by the outside world.
In Libya too, the evidence for actual, rather than incipient chaos is not as strong as it might appear – “if anything, the fighting appears to be getting worse, as the country breaks into hostile armed fractions – a fertile hunting ground for al-Qaeda,” says Oborne. Yet this is demonstrably untrue. There are squabbles and fights between different (largely city-based) militias, in which some die, and that is indeed a worrying portent for the future. But the deaths are small compared to the shootings of the early days of the uprising, let alone the war that followed. The absence, not presence, of al-Qaeda is the most startling aspect of the new Libya. Amnesty International rightly pointed the other day to the barbarous behaviour of the once heroic Misrata brigade, and the prisoners they have tortured and, in 12 cases, killed. That is damnable; but it is a figure that would be regarded as “great progress” in the case of our other Middle East ventures, and that is not as sick a thought as it seems to anyone who witnessed the horrors of Gaddafi and his brood. I will not quickly forget the sight of the remains of the scores killed and cremated by Khamis Gaddafi in a single incident in a shed-prison as he fled Tripoli in August.
My friend Borzou Daraghi wrote a very powerful piece on the dangers ahead for Libya in the Financial Times to mark the anniversary of the uprising there last week. But he rightly pinpoints the nub of the matter: the corruption and brutality already engendered in society by the Gaddafi regime and, by analogy, the other dictatorships of the region. The other example frequently used – though not by Oborne – is the radicalisation in general and persecution of Christians in particular in Egypt. This may indeed get worse, God forbid, but it is important to remember where this comes from: the worst two massacres of Christians recently too place first (in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve 2010) under the Mubarak regime, and secondly at the hands of his army (in Maspero last August). Radical Islam is wildly popular now, a response to 30 years of Mubarak rule: it has not been created as a result of his fall. This is what “our” dictator did for us.
Commentators talk of the Arab Spring as unleashing a poison across the Middle East. The ghastliness of the mixed metaphor is enough to show how flawed is the thought it expresses. The poison was there. It was created, or at least nurtured, by the dictatorships, the same dictatorships that are now bombing their own people in their homes and seizing children off the streets, cutting out their genitals, and murdering them. Are we really to turn a blind eye? The politics of the Arab Spring are just as complicated as Oborne suggests, but a simple principle remains of overwhelming importance. Can Europe really urge democracy on the world, while consigning our neighbours to the rule of psychopaths?