Kofi Annan, until recently the UN and Arab League envoy for Syria, has warned, “Syria is not Libya — it will not implode, it will explode beyond its borders.”
Events on the ground indicate that it is only a matter of time before his warning becomes a reality. The kidnapping of Saudi, Turkish and Syrian nationals this week in Lebanon’s Shiite areas where the militia group Hezbollah’s writ runs brings to memory the horrible past of the Lebanese civil war.
In the meantime, the Organisation of Islamic Countries yesterday suspended Syria despite Iran’s objection. It comes as little surprise when most of the OIC countries are influenced by the US and Saudi Arabia. The suspension also shows how desperate the US-Saudi-Qatar-Turkey alliance that seeks regime change in Syria is. Their regime change formula which worked in Libya appears to be stuck in the Syrian quagmire. Annan is right. Syria is not Libya.
This is because the main factors in the regime change formula that saw the ouster of strongman Muammar Gaddafi in a brutal, uncivilised, violent rebellion are missing in the Syrian formula. Yet the West and its supporters in the Middle East are determined to create such factors in the hope that the formula would work.
Let’s analyse some of these factors.
In Libya, the intensity of opposition to the regime varied from area to area. In the highly populated Benghazi and Misrata, the anti-Gaddafi sentiments were high, while in Tripoli, a majority of the people had no special love for either side. Sparsely populated Sirte and Bani Walid remained loyal to Gaddafi throughout the conflict. In the final analysis, those who supported the rebellion together with those who remained neutral outnumbered loyal Gaddafi supporters.
In Syria, a majority of the people support neither the government nor the rebels. While the country’s Alawaites and the Christians who together make up 20 per cent of the population are against the rebellion, secular minded people in Syria’s major cities such as Damascus and Aleppo are apprehensive of the rebels’ Islamic agenda. In the final analysis, Syrians are divided. However, indications are that the regime still has the support of a majority of the Syrians. Take for instance, Aleppo. For several days, the city had been in the hands of the rebels. Yet the people there did not join their ranks. They either fled the fighting or remained neutral.
This was quite in contrast to the Libyan situation where western television channels and pro-West television channels in the Arab world showed people celebrating and chanting anti-Gaddafi slogans as city after city fell to the rebels.
On Tuesday, Anita McNaught, al-Jazeera television’s reporter on the ground in the rebel-controlled parts of Aleppo, commented that the city was slow to demonstrate any widespread support for the rebels.
“Why now, when the Free Syrian Army was so quickly consolidating its hold, were its ranks not being swelled by volunteers from the city?” she asked.
One of the rebels responded rather unconvincingly: “They are afraid of the situation now. It’s new to them. It’s not like the countryside all around here which has had time to get used to the fighting.”
So Syria is not like Libya.
When the Libyan rebellion was gaining momentum, the West and its Arab allies succeeded in pushing through a United Nations Security Council resolution imposing a no-fly zone over Libya. By employing various arm-twisting methods, the United States obtained the support of Russia and China for the resolution. While Gaddafi more or less observed the resolution, the West gave a warped interpretation to it and went beyond the UN mandate in destroying the Libyan security forces’ military machine. In the guise of imposing the UN resolution, the West provided air support to the rebels fighting on the ground.
In the case of Syria, both China and Russia have so far withstood the Western pressure and are displaying a will to continue their opposition to any UN resolution against Syria. This is because of their apprehension that the West could deliberately misinterpret the resolution and militarily intervene in the conflict in support of the rebels, as it did in Libya. Russia and China do not want the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria to fall because it will not only change the geopolitics of the region in favour of the United States, but will put them in a disadvantageous position in the context of the undeclared cold war between the US and its allies on the one side and Russia and China on the other.
So Syria is not like Libya.
While the crisis in Libya did not spill over to the neighbouring countries, the Syrian conflict has already had ripples in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. A Reuter report on Wednesday said Saudi Arabia had told its citizens to leave Lebanon after the mass kidnappings in retaliation for events in Syria. This has raised fears that violence may be spilling across the region driven by sectarian rancour and great power rivalries.
The kidnappers have threatened to take more Saudi, Turkish and Qatari hostages to secure the release of kinsmen held by Syrian rebels in Damascus. Recently, the Syrian rebels also seized some 40 Iranians in Syria. The rebels say the captives were fighting Assad’s war. Iran insists they were pilgrims to a Shiite shrine in Syria though it admits that some of them are retired revolutionary guards.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah has indicated that it is ready to defend the Assad regime and defeat the Israeli-US conspiracy to weaken what its leader Hasan Nasrallah called the forces of resistance.
In another development, Assad appears to have relaxed his hold on Syria’s Kurdish areas in a bid to warn Turkey. Some military leaders of the Kurdistan Workers Party which is fighting a guerilla war for a separate state within Turkey for the country’s 20 per cent Kurds have found refuge in Syria, prompting Ankara to issue a severe warning to Damascus. This indicates that the conflict in Syria also has a Kurdish powder keg.
So Syria is certainly not like Libya.
These dissimilarities apart, there are some striking parallels, too. Both Libya and Syria did the dirty work for the United States during the war on terror. The US and its western allies sent captured Arab prisoners to Libya and Syria as part of their abominable practice of outsourcing torture.
The West is hiding the atrocities of the rebels as it did those of the Libyan rebels. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups that are funded by western governments are muted in their condemnation of the blatant war crimes committed by the Syrian rebels. A number of videos posted on Youtube show how unarmed regime supporters and captured police officers were mowed down in a hail of small arms fire in brutal execution style.
Like in Libya, there are foreign troops fighting alongside the Syrian rebels. Among them were several Libyans and al-Qaeda sympathisers from the Sunni Arab world.
These foreign fighters, along with Syrian rebels, were armed, financed and trained by the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Syria, meanwhile, charges that the rebels are being trained and handled by the CIA and Mossad, the Israeli intelligence.
Given the ground situation, it is now confirmed that the Syrian rebellion has been hijacked by the West. It is not a sectarian conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites. It is a geopolitical war to control the region. Perhaps one of the goals of the US-Saudi-Turkey-Qatar alliance is to facilitate an Israeli attack on Iran. The alliance’s concern is not so much the attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities but how to prevent the outbreak of a region-wide war if Iran decides to retaliate with pro-Iranian Hezbollah in Lebanon also joining the war. It is in this context that removing the pro-Iranian Assad regime assumes so much strategic importance.