Observations of an expat: Disastrous Middle East victory


It looks as if the fighting in Iraq and Syria will draw to a close in 2017. We won and lost.

Isis,  Isil, Daesh, Al-Nusra, A lQaeeda, whatever name the Jihadists call themselves  have been pushed out of the remains of Aleppo and are hanging on by their blood-soaked fingertips in Mosul and Raqqa.

Also destroyed and seeking peace terms are Western-backed rebels in the Free Syrian Army and its dozens of feuding constituent parts.

The Obama Administration and its 13 allies backing air strikes could claim victory.  They may even try to do so.  And in terms of denying the Jihadists a territorial base, there are justifiable grounds for a victory claim.

However, Islamic extremism is far from defeated. Jihadists have repeatedly displayed their prowess in filling political vacuums wherever they occur, and Western intelligence agencies are issuing dire warnings of attacks on Western soil orchestrated by bitter battle-hardened extremists in full flight from the Middle East.

No, the real winners are Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iran and Hezbollah.  And the real result is a massive defeat for the democratic hopes of the 2011 Arab Spring and a  victory for tyranny

Syria has not been a nice place to live for some time.  Successive dictators—including Bashar’s father Hafez—have ruled under state of emergency laws since 1963. There was no way that the Bashar Al Assad would loosen his tyrannical reins.  The result is the humanitarian disaster that is the Syrian civil war. Before 2011 22 million people lived in Syria. Now, the UN estimates that 6.1 million people have been either killed or internally displaced. Another 4.8 million are refugees.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International estimate that the Assad regime has tortured to death up to 75,000 people. At least 200,000 are in detention in facilities from which the International Red Cross is barred.

The stated aim of the Western Alliance was to topple Assad, even though air strikes were restricted to Jihadist targets.  Thanks to Russia that aim failed. By September 2015 a combination of rebel rivalry and Western resolve had resulted in a stalemate.  Putin  spotted the opportunity to tip the scales in favour of the Syrian leader and—coincidentally- -establish Russia as the dominant Non-Arab power in in the Middle East.

He intervened on the side of Assad and dispatched planes, special  forces and eventually an aircraft carrier, to attack not only the anti-Assad Jihadists but also the Western-backed rebels.  The Russians lacked the smart bombs of the West that limited collateral civilian deaths. But they had the advantage of being at one with Assad in ignoring  such social niceties.

The inevitable result came on Thursday when  Putin announced a ceasefire agreement and the start of peace talks with virtually all the rebels except the Al Qaeeda affiliates.  He further announced that Russia and Turkey – whose tanks occupy a slice of northern Syria—would be guarantors. The US and its allies are pointedly excluded.

To achieve this goal, Putin has formed alliances with anti-American Iran and Iranian-backed Hezbollah—two of the  most vehement opponents of Israel.

As a price for his support for Assad, Putin has also secured an air base in Syria at Khmeimin and strengthened the long-term Russian naval base at Tartus. On top of that he now has the right to move equipment and personnel in and out of the bases without inspection or interruption by the Syrian authorities.  Khmeimin and Tartus  have become  de facto sovereign Russian territory.

To sum up, The Russian President has rescued Assad, started to split Turkey away from NATO, strengthened the position of Iran and Hezbollah, created two military bases in the heart of the Arab world and established himself as the strong man of the Middle East.

The last point could prove to be the most telling. Arab leaders are realists. They  respect  power and success and will work with those who achieve it. At the moment that is Assad and Putin.

* Tom Arms is the Foreign Editor of Liberal Democratic Voice. His book “America Made in Britain” has recently been published by Amberley Books. He is also the author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War.”

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  • Eddie Sammon 30th Dec '16 - 6:05pm

    This is a good summary. I have a couple of observations to make.

    1. We need to clarify what exactly a war criminal is. At the moment it seems you are a war criminal if you are brutal and lose a war, but you are a “smart operator” if you are brutal and win a war. The Hague should not just be for losers.

    2. We all share the blame for Putin’s victory, including western foreign policy analysts, many of whom have been unable to sell their policies to the western public. They can’t just blame parliament for voting against action because the public has never shown an appetite to get directly involved in this war. The favourite for the French presidency, François Fillon, openly supports Putin and Assad. Trump likes them too. The West has got its predictions badly wrong recently.

  • Martin Land 30th Dec '16 - 6:17pm

    The west invariably gets t the Middle East wrong by assuming that opposition groups want democracy. The simple fact is that each section, group or faction wants to be dominant. The Kurds, Druze, Shia, Sunni, IS, Al-Nusra, etc. simply want to take the place of Assad’s Alawites NOT create a democratic government.

  • Tony Greaves 30th Dec '16 - 6:59pm

    That’s much too simplistic. As for Aleppo, there was little evidence of ISIS there. From an early stage in the civil war, Assad was trying to turn it into him and his side against jihadists ie ISIS. He has largely succeeded so far. But there is still a long way to go and the current ceasefire, if it holds at all, is just tactical. Down the line is the question of the Kurds in the northern areas which neither Assad nor Erdogan will want to see setting up a permanent area of self-rule like that in Iraq.

  • Andrew McCaig 31st Dec '16 - 2:08am

    Well, the only Arab Spring country with anything like a western democracy after 5 years is Tunisia..

    I am afraid imagining that we could somehow have got rid of Assad and established a liberal democracy in Syria is a triumph of hope over experience. An Islamic state would have been the most likely result, or a counter-revolution like Egypt. Probably better than what we have today..

    John, do you have evidence for the statement “The conflict in Syria has never been primarily sectarian”? Do we not have Hezbollah and Iran involved because they support Assad’s Alawite Shiite minority against the majority Sunni population, who are supported by Saudi Arabia? The involvement of Russia is part of a different “great game” with the USA, but all the other outside actors have split along the great sectarian divide in Islam, which is looking very akin to the 30 years war between Protestants and Catholics in Europe….

    I must say I am beginning to subscribe to the view that exporting western-style democracy to the Middle East has not been a very good policy for the people who live there…

  • This article holds the same inaccurate, tired assumptions that give a distorted, wrenched snapshot that reassure western delusions. Examples of such distortions are:
    1. The writer believes that Bashar Al-Assad should be toppled- presumably because he’s (a) undemocratic and (b) ” tortured to death” more people that your average undemocratic regime. But the AI 75k figure is NOT accumulated actual accounts- it’s based on PROJECTIONS. Spinning that torture happened at an exceptional scale due to Bashar’s rule is a massive distortion. Other groups who’d take over – including the “Free Syrian Army” have THE SAME tendencies. e.g. Iraq: Did Saddam Hussein’s level of torturing stop after Iraqi ‘Democracy’? No- just different perpetrators and victims.
    2. No liberals ever have ANY chance of a. sweeping to power and b. stopping police/army torture. The slow reforms that Assad took between 2000 & 2011 were making Syria a nicer place, and the best chance to gradually lessen sectarian scars towards improving individual freedoms.
    3. The West intervened in Syria aiming to topple Assad well before the 2011 “Arab Spring”. Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, John Bolton etc in the George Bush govt with their PNAC took US policy to channel funds & training via Saudi to reopen sectarian sores in Syria. NICE STUFF. Things in Syria didn’t kick off just with peaceful demonstrations- there were years of planned destabilisation to seize a moment of weakness!
    3. Western govt concern over Assad has got sweet F.A. to do with Human Rights, but about the spat following Lockerbie (preceded by stitching up the Syrians over the Golan Heights, and the US shooting down 400 civilians in an Iranian jet)
    4. The “FSA” was never a viable, secular, “democratic” force. Most Syrians may fear the FSA as much as other jihadist groups like Al-Nusra, and more than the Syrian Army. The tiny FSA are usually allied with Al-Nusra & other jihadist groups. Secular Kurdish groups are loosely allied to the Syrian Army and fight against the FSA. Why, Tom Arms, don’t you like to tell that part of what is happening in Syria?
    5. This article deceives by masking how ISIS grew out of the FSA. If the west had destroyed Assad in 2013, the stage would have been set exactly how ISIS wanted- to compare themselves with the rise of the 7th century Arab forces as if out of nowhere.

  • Geoffrey Payne 31st Dec '16 - 7:38am

    I agree with Andrew McCaig although I respect the expertise of John McHugo.
    Although I doubt that an Islamic state of the kinds being offered might be a better alternative.
    If there is to be democracy in Syria who should we be backing?

  • The Russian naval facility in Tartus dates back to 1971, the Khmeimim Air Base is more recent however. The crux of the problem is the Russians (and to some extent the Chinese) weren’t prepared to see their interests swept away with a western backed regime change.

  • Everything about our recent involvement in the ME has been ill-conceived and as a result destructive. It was just a hang over from cold war era notions of spheres of influence. An absolute disaster from start to finish which has now become an exercise in face saving bluster.

  • Jayne Mansfield 31st Dec '16 - 11:35am

    @ John McHugo,
    I am struggling with your distinction. You say that it is not a case of exporting liberal democracy to Syria, but instead a case of trying to help people to achieve democracy for themselves. But isn’t the outcome the same and wasn’t the outcome predictable?

    President Obama wary of intervention in the Middle East appears to have opted for a strategy of providing weaponry, expertise etc., so that the people of Syria could fight their own battles. But is not the case, that by our initial interference and bolstering of the confidence of the revolutionaries that it was a winnable fight, the US and its allies including the UK have once more set in train an inevitable proxy war?

    What evidence is there that the Syrian people as a whole would have preferred democracy to stability? And having experienced the horror that has unfolded, would they still feel the same?

    These are genuine questions. I would love to read your book but I now have to ‘chunk’ my reading into much shorter sessions.

  • “I must say I am beginning to subscribe to the view that exporting western-style democracy to the Middle East has not been a very good policy for the people who live there…”

    The Enlightenment, never reached out as far as the Middle East. Democracy and freedom of speech, both, required that piece of Enlightenment history, to serve as a bedrock for such political and cultural change.

    If there are Muslim equivalents of ~ Francis Bacon,.. Thomas Hobbes,.. Immanuel Kant,.. Kepler,.. Leibniz…. you can be fairly sure they live [or lived], somewhere in our European neighbourhood, where it’s still safe to say what you think.

    The best thing we can do for the Middle East right now is to stop [right here at home], this ‘fraying’ at the edges of our own, long fought for democracy, and freedom of speech. After many failed attempts in that region, we need to grasp that both Enlightenment an Democracy cannot simply be ‘shipped out’,.. nor ‘crusade-ed’, into a place that is not culturally ready for it. Sometimes, harsh as it seems, you have to shrug, and let people work it out, at their own pace.?

  • Andrew McCaig 1st Jan '17 - 12:30am

    J Dunn,
    Yes, we had our own civil war in 1642, cut off the King’s head, but it still took nearly 300 years for women to get the vote! And we can still be ruled by a government with the support of just 37% of those who bother to vote..

    We have had relative stability in Britain for many centuries, and until recently increasing freedom of speech (we now have lynching by Twitter which is a serious curtailment) . But getting democracy to take root takes many generations…

  • “J Dunn – when people struggle for democracy they are “culturaly ready for it”.”

    It would be wonderful if that were the case,.. but unfortunately, it often transpires that what appears to be ‘fledgeling’ democracy in the Middle East, turns out to be more of a raw choice between, ‘*my* religious or cultural fiefdom’, in place of ‘*your* opposing choice of cultural fiefdom’.?

    It could be argued that democracy, is a willingness to accept loss at the ballot box, with good grace.?

    And on that note,.. it could be further argued, that the ‘left behind’ here in the UK were ‘culturally ready for democracy’, as they spoke on the 23rd of June, and yet Tim Farron is hell bent on refusing to accept or listen to their voice, until he get the answer he wants.?

    Sadly,.. democracy is a somewhat tenuous, even in the minds of some supposed ‘Democrats’.

    For sure,.. the term ‘Lib Dem’ should be dropped from the ‘lexicon’ of valid terms of language in 2017, because with Tim Farron as ‘Head of Liberal Sulking’,,…Liberals have unquestionably, lost the moral right to call themselves Democrats.?

  • Jayne Mansfield 2nd Jan '17 - 7:31pm

    @ John McHugo,
    Thank you for your explanation. No apology required.

    I do not share John Dunn’s view that people in the area do not wish for democracy and that the original uprising was about democracy.

    The problem I have is that Tunisia had the organisational capacity to mount a revolution. Although the regime was repressive, there were strong workers movements for example the UGTT and they were capable and able to carry part of the army and some of the apparatus of government with them. Syria, as far as I am aware, was far more repressive and there were no organised forces to fight the regime, many opponents of the Assad regime had already fled the country.

    The Assad family have never been fussy about who they strike allegiances with if it perpetuates and strengthens their corrupt and brutal domination. I still am unsure how early intervention would really have made any difference to outcome given that there was little properly organised opposition and little appetite for full scale intervention from America. Can one really be certain that Russia with its interests in Syria, Iran and Hezbollah with heir own interests, would not have entered the fray to support Assad whatever, and a proxy war could have been avoided?

    And now there is Donald Trump to add to the mix.

  • Jayne Mansfield 2nd Jan '17 - 7:32pm

    Sorry,I agree that the original uprising was about democracy.

  • J Dunne “It could be argued that democracy, is a willingness to accept loss at the ballot box, with good grace.?” And to continue to campaign for one’s beliefs in the hope of changing minds in the knowledge that democracy is a continuing process and nothing is fixed for ever by the outcome of a single election.

  • Jayne Mansfield 4th Jan '17 - 9:28am

    @ John McHugo,
    Thank you for the link.

  • A New Year, and already more fresh distorted reporting from the BBC on Syria.
    In 2017, the BBC on Syria has so far led on a story that the Syrian Govt has already ‘violated new ceasefire terms’ by attacking “rebels” in the countryside west of Damascus, around Wadi Barada.
    But no mention is given to Wadi Barada being the major fresh water supply to Damascus, and that within the last fortnight, the rebels first deliberately contaminated the water with Diesel to be undrinkable, and then stopped this freshwater supply to the millions in Damascus.
    So the Syrian Army has gone to stop this “rebel” stranglehold on a fundamental need for millions of Syrians.
    This impact on millions of Syrians is clearly not newsworthy to the established agenda that James Parnell’s BBC has been feeding us. Yet again, this full picture does not fit with their main narrative on Syria, so they have taken a partial slant on the event to communicate a completely different message from the full story.

  • @John McHugo: ” In 2011 Syrians went onto the streets calling for reform and democracy, showing great courage. It is what they want.”
    No, it was a selection of Syrian opinion that you chose to see, from those sources you trust, as a version of truth: Echo Chamber syndrome.
    You conveniently ignore the vast majority who didn’t protest and wanted to get on with their lives, which had been increasingly less harassed by the regime. And you ignored the many islamists, such as the many jihadists far more extreme than the suppressed Syrian Muslim brotherhood (We dumped the more moderate Egyptian M.B. anyway) who have never had any interest in ‘reform and democracy’.

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