On 5 September, The Daily Telegraph carried the headline, “Obama will strike Syria to end war”. Only the heartlessly cynical could make such a statement; only the hopelessly naive would have believed it. Because, had it taken place, the air strike would have destroyed the Syrian government’s capacity to stave off the waves of al Qaeda-linked jihadis who are flooding into Syria through Turkey from more than 40 countries. This would not have been the end of a war but the beginning of a sectarian holocaust that would have engulfed the entire Mediterranean and, just possibly, spilled over into a global war.
US Secretary of State John Kerry’s supposedly off-the-cuff offer that Washington would call off its attack on Syria if the Bashar al Assad regime disclosed and destroyed all of its chemical weapons under international supervision; Syria’s immediate acceptance; and the Kerry-Lavrov agreement on its implementation have averted the strike, but the threat is not yet over. Because the agreement has put the noses of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel out of joint. They and the hawks in the US will spare no effort to complete the long-nurtured plan to destroy the secular regime of al Assad and replace it with an Islamic theocracy.
Syrians are fully aware of this and continue to prepare for the worst. In Damascus, young men are acquiring arms; tailors are working night and day to sew uniforms for them; and families are stockpiling food and water for the grim days that might lie ahead. Christians and Alawites who can afford to, are sending their families to Lebanon. “After the Americans finish bombing, the jihadis will come,” said one young man to BBC as he waved his pro-Assad wristband in front of the camera. We will be waiting for them. I’m prepared to die for my country.”
Shias have been mobilising in neighbouring Iraq. “This is Iraq 2003 all over again,” an Iraqi told The Guardian. “We will not leave our Syrian brethren to fight alone.” In Lebanon, the Hezbollah is geared for battle. Its cadres have decimated fleeing jihadis who have sought shelter in Lebanon. Today, they are preparing to flood into Syria with the full backing of the bulk of the Lebanese population.
Syria’s Kurds are also being drawn into the war. Fazel Hawramy, an independent journalist from Iraqi Kurdistan, reported in his blog on 28 August that around 70 Kurds belonging to the al Qaeda-linked Ansar-ul-Islam had joined the Jabhat al Nusra and were fighting Kurds belonging to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria. The Syrian Kurds, therefore, already know that al Qaeda has no intention of respecting their autonomy. This suggests that the wider war that the bombings will unleash is likely to engulf Syrian Kurdistan as well. Lastly, since the PYD is the Syrian affiliate of the powerful Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, the fighting can spread not only to sections of Turkey’s 22 million Alawites but to its 11 million Kurds as well.
The alacrity with which US President Barack Obama seized upon Kerry’s suggestion shows that he was aware of the danger, but was persuaded by the sheer horror of the chemical attack; his own (also) off-the-cuff “red line” remark of December 2012, and the intense lobbying of Israel and its American supporters, who spared no effort to persuade members of his government that an air strike on Syria could yield a “heads-I-win, tails-you-lose” result.
A strong but limited missile strike, Israel had argued, would weaken the Assad regime without giving the jihadis an outright victory. The prolonged civil war that would follow would eliminate most of the jihadis, weaken the Hezbollah and bleed Syria into impotence, leaving Israel the undisputed master of the eastern Mediterranean. It would also send an unambiguous warning to Iran of what it would face if it pursued its nuclear weapons programme.
More than anything else, this calculation reflects the acute paranoia that has gripped Israel after the destruction of Iraq and the failure of its attack upon the Hezbollah in 2006. For Israel, even an al Qaeda-linked regime in Syria seemed acceptable if it broke the ‘Shia’ corridor from Iran to the Hezbollah. But for Obama, as Russia’s support for Syria hardened, this course of action must have appeared fraught with peril. How could his advisers be so confident that their air-cum-missile strike would draw no response from the Syrian armed forces? How could they be sure that a military response would be completely ineffective? In 2003, Iraq’s response had been ineffective because 12 years of sanctions had left its armed forces without spare parts for aircraft, tanks and guns, and with only limited stores of ammunition and missiles. In 2011, Libya’s was ineffective because the country was tiny, militarily isolated, and had been taken by surprise.
Syria, by contrast had had days of warning. It had a battle-hardened army, an array of sophisticated Russian missiles, including an upgraded version of the Yakhont anti-ship missile and, just possibly, a few operational batteries of the S-300. What is more, unlike Libya, it would not be cyber-blind because seven Russian warships were stationed along the Syrian coast, feeding it real-time information on American ship movements and missile launches.
In these circumstances, the perils of escalation were enormous. Could Obama be sure that Syria would not succeed in sinking a single American ship or bringing down a single aircraft? And if it did, how would a president who had been relentlessly attacked for being weak and vacillating, withstand enraged demands for immediate retaliation?
The imponderables did not end there. Could he be sure that Iran would not join the battle; that Baghdad would not give safe passage to Iranian and Iraqi fighters, and Russians not send ships loaded with S-300 and other deadly missiles, daring the US to stop them?
US Vice-President Joe Biden and Senator John McCain thought the attack would be a breeze because of Libya. But for Syria, the correct precedent is not Iraq or Libya but Kosovo. When NATO first drew up plans to cripple Yugoslav forces in Kosovo from the air, it had expected to use 40 aircraft and bomb Kosovo for two weeks. But when its supposedly deadly precision bombing damaged or destroyed no more than 20 percent of Yugoslavia’s guns and armour in Kosovo, NATO commander Gen Wesley Clarke was compelled to seek permission to widen his attack. As a result by mid-April, 1999, three weeks after the bombing began, NATO had committed 1,000 aircraft to a non-stop bombing of Kosovo and the rest of Serbia.
In the next 50 days, NATO bombers flew nearly 6,000 bombing missions, dropped 20,000 bombs, knocked out half of Serbia and Montenegro’s airports, all of their oil-refining capacity, 31 bridges (including all but two over the Danube), 70 percent of its power supply, two railway systems that linked Serbia to Kosovo, and most of its telecommunications system.
A similar ‘mission creep’ in Syria will complete the destruction of its economy and ensure a jihadi victory. That is when the West’s real problems will start. Because victory will leave 10,000-15,000 foreign jihadis (by Kerry’s estimate) unemployed, penniless and unwanted. With shattered economies and little chance of finding a job at home, few will wish, or indeed be allowed, to return to their home countries. Ousting them from Syria, should they wish to stay, will require another civil war, one in which the West will have to put boots on the ground. But the jihadis may spare them the trouble by looking for other holy wars to fight. As Osman, a Kurdish member of the Jabhat al Nusra, wrote to his brother in Halabja shortly before his death, “Once the fight is over here (in Syria), we will go anywhere the kuffar are fighting against Muslims.”
This will become the starting point of a second, even more destructive, terrorist war that will engulf Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia (which has also sent several hundred jihadis to Syria) and, ultimately Israel itself. Jordan and Egypt will be the targets of choice for al Qaeda and its numerous affiliates, like the Hizbut Tahrir, who have never made any secret of their ultimate goal, which is to liberate al Quds (Jerusalem) and the al Aqsa mosque. This requires the destruction of Israel. The easiest way to Israel lies through Jordan and the Sinai. So, these Islamist mercenaries are likely to target the strongly pro-West, half-British, monarchy in Jordan and the tottering, army-backed, secular regime in Egypt. In both countries, the influx of several thousand battle-hardened fighters who are willing to die for Islam will tilt the scales against the survival of the government. Iran will then be the least of its worries.
By floating, and then rapidly accepting an alternative course of action that relied upon diplomacy, Obama and Kerry have saved the world from going down this terrible road. But the danger has not passed. The next months will be crucial. India, with its immense “soft power” could play a vital role in restoring peace.