What is Syria to us? We ask this question as we ask most questions concerning afflicted parts of the world. Whether famine in Africa, civil war in the Middle East or simple corruption in many more parts of the world than we like to acknowledge, we ask that question – what is it to us? – in the same way: Conflicted.
On the one hand we are utterly convinced that we, not just through past action but through present duplicity, are at the root of their problems. The Middle East, including Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, is in a state of perennial conflict because, a) we drew lines on the map in the wrong place, or, b) we support and supported the wrong people, whether Israelis, dictators of Islamists.
And on the other hand we seem equally convinced that we are essential to any solution. Apparently, if the news is to be believed, the answer to Syria’s present misfortune is for us and our allies to facilitate the arming of the rebels. Reports are already coming in that the USA and France have already started doing just this, through Saudi Arabia.
Previously we supported Assad. We figured that his regime was not perfect, on account of its authoritarian nature and support for terrorism, but that it was probably the best option. Culturally-divided and volatile countries like Syria, like most of the others in the region, need strong, authoritarian government to prevent fragmentation and civil war. But apparently this was wrong. Not that we were wrong to support him, but that we were supporting him for the wrong reason.
The correct reason to support him was because of his pretty wife. She was born and bred in London, and epitomised progressive Britain. She was female, of foreign heritage and above all she was a non-burqua-wearing-female-emancipation-campaigning Muslim. And we all know that this is the sort of person best placed to keep the peace in that part of the world.
So, we are simultaneously the problem and the solution. Not only did we support the evil dictator, but we supported him for the wrong reason. Progressive values are far more important than peace and stability, aren’t they? Yes, let’s go with that. And so we must make amends for our past error and support the progressive rebel forces. In their ranks are to be found the democrats and the female-emancipationists.
It is certainly true that in that much contorted term, Arab-Spring, there are people and groups who want nothing more than to see more freedom, liberty, democracy and toleration in their countries, Syria included. But we also know that it is not as simple as good-guys versus bad-guys. Jihadists, terrorists and Islamic reactionaries have jumped on the back of the uprising, and they, it can be safely said, do not want what the democrats want. Some of their methods are as equally horrific as those used by government forces.
If internal volatility and competing aspirations were not enough, there are wider strategic considerations. Assad is not operating alone. He is backed by Iran and Hezbollah, both trying to shore up the position of Shia in the region. And lined up on the other side are the Sunnis. The reason Saudi Arabia is reportedly supplying arms to the rebels is not because they have a burning desire for Western-style democracy and liberty, but because they are Sunnis and they want to undermine the power of Iran and Shia in the region.
In short, it’s a mess. And it’s a mess not because of us, but because of the intractable cultural and political divisions of the region. We did not create the conflict and we cannot end it. At best we can help the UN to contain the situation and push for an end to the fighting; at worst, we can make the situation even more volatile and dangerous by meddling in the mistaken belief that the situation is all about us and that it is we who can manipulate a solution. But it seems to me that arming the good rebels, keeping those arms out of the hands of the bad rebels, is not going to help end the war.