Syria: mythology and the momentum for a global war

For a long time I had no clear sense of which 'side' was 'good' and which 'bad'. After the initial horror at the repressive response of the Assad regime to its Arab Spring, plus the notoriety of the Syrian government as a secretive and oppressive dictatorship, my sympathy was full square behind the anti-Assad forces.

Then as things played out, and the opposition seemed to be infiltrated by some rather nasty groups, and in any case was hopelessly divided, the fog of war left me confused while troubled and sad at the growing displacement of millions and the hardship millions more were enduring. I know priests and nuns working in Syria, and the grinding, gruelling descent into total civil chaos and the growing manifestation of vicious hatred towards minorities such as Christians, made my unease more intense.

The threat of military action by the USA and its allies was a game changer for me, because it forced open the lid on what is going on behind the scenes in this conflict, and as public debate has raged in the West, journalists and bloggers have been feeding into the public narrative on this conflict facts which rip through the neatly crafted propaganda spewed out by our various national political establishments. After the Iraq war dodgy dossier I guess most Brits are suspicious of 'intelligence', presuming it is either incompetent or just simply fabricated. We don't trust the secret service any more, which is a very, very serious situation for any country to find itself in, and more particularly a government which has to rely on such services for its intelligence and on the public trust for those institutions in order to act without having to spell out exactly why it has concluded what it has. But Tony Blair' spin machine effectively jammed an iron rod through the bicycle wheel and with subsequent events such as the Wikileaks scandal and more recently the Snowdon revelations public scepticism and suspicion that all is not as we have been led to believe is high. The consequences are serious, but it is a crisis of the intelligence services own hubris and the veniality of our political class. And whatever the causes, the effect is that firstly people just won't accept what 'intelligence reports' conclude and secondly, people are digging deeper, and for that are aided by social media and the Internet.

And I am one of those. So, over the past few months my eyes twitch when I see some article being posted which suggests nuggets of information that cut through the monolithic 'Assad is Bad' line, and in doing so a very complex web of geo-political forces seems to emerge.

For example, one key element of this recent push for war was the claim about chemical weapons having been used. On this deeply emotive topic the British establishment raised the standard of its moral crusade, and it snapped almost immediately as the British public shouted 'no more war', followed by at least one UN inspectors' opinion that sarin had been used... by the rebels. As reporters began to sift through the emotional rhetoric, the picture on the ground was, as usual, far from clear cut or one-sided. The case for action was in fact on these grounds hollow, and thank God the British Parliament voted it out.

Another aspect which I came across was the long history of Western opposition to the Assad regime, going back deep into the Cold War. The old narrative of a vicious and repressive dictator was somewhat nuanced for me by a documentary I came across which showed that the rise of Assad senior was part of attempts by Arab secularists and minorities to protect themselves from extremists in the Sunni majority. Having seen how Egypt and Libya have been convulsed by the unleashing of this simmering religious fundamentalism the tenacity with which secularists have clung to Assad becomes more understandable, and the case for seeing the Syrian conflict as truly a civil war rather than one between a vicious dictator backed by the army and the people, seems more credible. This was not, in other words, another Gaddafi.

The latest article today I came across this morning revealed the energy battles being raged through Syria, by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia. We have been sold the story that Russian support is a sort of vestige of its Cold War role, and more recently as another chapter in Putin as the Great Defender of Orthodoxy and the Christians, which is playing out very potently among Christian Palestinians for example, where the mighty, imperialist Russian Orthodox Church has been steadily increasing its 'gifts' to the Jerusalem Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch has become a frequent guest of churches within the sphere of the Moscow patriarchate. More recently the Russian government offered to redevelop areas of Bethlehem at a budget of millions of dollars, most significantly Manger Square itself. A narrative has neatly been developing where the Orthodox Church and the Putin regime are seen as Great Russia reborn, and the Middle East is a key element of the old Imperial Russian hegemony (for example the current structure around the tomb of Christ was built by the Tsars) .

This role of Russia as the defender of the defenceless little Christians is something the Orthodox community is naturally emotionally drawn to, and so the pro-Assad, defending Christians narrative has got traction. Now at Easter this year I was with the Syrian Orthodox entering the Holy Sepulchre beneath a banner of the two kidnapped bishops from Syria, while inside the young Syriac Christians (originally from Turkey by the way and refugees from the anti-Christian genocide of the early 20th century) chanted pro-Assad slogans. The persecution of Christians, in the form of bombed churches, kidnapped bishops and executed believers is very real, but the nature of the Syrian conflict is such that this neatly slips into other narratives which serve other purposes than the one we at first think we are dealing with.

So, this article today exposes the importance of Syria in the sale of natural gas to... Europe. Now anyone with a bit of a memory will remember the way Russia brought the Ukraine to its knees by cutting of the gas supplies to Europe a few years ago. Europe was in crisis, with people literally freezing to death in countries such as Romania and Hungary, while the Ukrainian government was brought to heel in the most public and humiliating way. Gas is the way Putin's Russia tugs the lead of those nations it seeks to re-integrate into the new Russian sphere of influence, and its a vicious, powerful tool which they are not afraid to use. Forget gassing populations. This is a leader willing to literally freeze old women and the sick to death in order to establish Russian hegemony once again.

Any new sources of gas to Europe would break the Russian stranglehold, and hence the power to establish and control its sphere of influence. Now it just so happens that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have massive amounts of gas, but can't get it to Europe unless they go through either Iraq or Syria. Iraq is a Shia, that is Iran inclined, State, as is Syria. And both have seemingly refused to sign agreements to build the necessary pipeline to enable Arab gas to reach a Mediterranean port, ie. to reach Europe. Assad's pro-Russian stance is the key factor enabling Russia to keep competition out of the European gas market.

Now it just so happens that these two Arab states are the ones pouring billions of dollars into trying to get the rebels into power, or rather to get Assad out of power, presumably opening the way for establishing some sort of Sunni government pliable to Qatari/Saudi interests. Certainly, they will be anti-Russian and the pipeline is an almost certainty. See, it isn't just the Americans who play dirty for fuel. Russians, Saudis, Qataris do too, and we forget that at our peril.

And they are doing this in a country which is at the vortex of region where these same players are deeply entrenched seeking to protect what they see as their national interests. America's has been well documented, oil, Israel, Iran etc. while Iran's meddling in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza has long been the stuff of filler articles for the Sunday press. Yet, these are very real interests, and ones which each nation will spend a lot of its energy and resources pursuing, including war. Iran, Israel and the United States all have immense military power and all encircle Syria.

Then you have the 'clash of civilisations' thesis which is again easily trotted out in the Sunday broadsheets, but in a very nuanced way does express how Islam, a religion based on its unassailable superiority as a political religious answer to the world's problem,s has been trying to recover from its complete political obliteration in the early 20th century at the hands of Western Christian Imperial powers, be that the British in India and the Middle East, or the French in North Africa. Assad's secularist power was in many ways created by the French imperial government who played minorities off against the Sunni majority. Memories run deep and long in the Arab world, and the energy in contemporary conflicts is often drawn from events buried deep in a past which others have long forgotten. Western nations get embroiled in these currents without even knowing it.

Syria brings all of these dangerous elements into a convergence, and negotiating them safely demands insight, balance, wisdom, intelligence, courage and a calm head, the very thing which the emotive attempts to whip up support against Assad is undermining. Sending videos of gassed children, as the Obama administration has just done, doesn't make for calm, detached evaluation of what is the right thing to do.

It is natural I guess to polarise our support, our sense of right and wrong, our passion for a resolution of such brutality, but it is not one which serves the reality of Syria and hence of finding a realistic solution. Narratives built on a myth of the moral high ground serve to rally the troops, but rarely to construct the peace. Sadly the way the conflict in Syria has been covered has been too much of this narrative of the moral high ground, and it has ground us into a momentum which could literally engulf the region in a much wider conflict and one where the stakes are much higher, touching into the vested national interests of the richest and most heavily armed nations on the planet.

However, what is not part of the narrative being sold to us


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