The backbone of calls for intervention has long been Turkey. How may we make sense of this? The government of Erdogan has its own fantasies of neo-Ottoman glory and may want to reassert its authority and influence over the region it ran for so long. That goes hand-in-hand with the old aim of carving a Kurdish Republic out of the body of a nearby neighbour to answer the Kurdish question, conveniently, without handing over any pieces of Anatolia. That aim has almost been achieved in Iraq where the Kurdish province has become more and more independent of Baghdad through its oil arrangements with Turkey. The Kurds of Syria are under threat from certain rebel forces, leading to 40,000 of them fleeing to Iraq and now the bridge over the river Tigris has been closed. That doesn’t particularly worry the Turkish government. But Erdogan might like to see a conclusion of some kind hastened by force in order to cease the influx of refugees to camps on Turkish soil.
All the while the major support for the Syrian rebels comes from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Saudi royal family want to see the competing model of Ba’athism dead and has no scruples about sending swarms of Wahhabi fundamentalists into Syria to finish the job. In doing so the House of Saud hopes to see the life of the republican and secular nationalist rival snuffed out. No such thing as Arab unity when it comes to holding onto the oiliest dirt in the ‘Middle East’. The sectarianism of this war was triggered by factors not totally internal to Islam. In Syria there is a class basis for sectarianism as the military is dominated by Alawite Muslims and economic power rests in the hands of a Sunni Muslim elite. Perhaps the Saudi oligarchy hopes to see a new regime which relies on the Sunni elite in Syria and not on the military dominated by Alawites. It would be a convenient move to flood the country with arms to Islamist groups who wish to deal with the Alawite Muslim minority.
Not coincidentally the Syrian regime is the only Arab ally of Iran, an officially Shi’ite republic, to the extent of backing Khomeini in the fight with Saddam. The Iranian government is now returning the favour in pledging support to Assad and going as far as sending 4,000 troops to assist in quashing the rebellion. The Assad regime is the stable route of arms to pass from Iran to Shi’ite militia in Lebanon and Iraq. Both the Iranians and the Hezbollah are anxious at the possibility of greater isolation in a region vulnerable to the military adventures of Washington and its proxies. Hezbollah may have defeated Israel in 2000 and 2006 at a huge cost. Hassan Nasrallah will be more than aware that the Israelis are not going to forget about Lebanon any time soon. Significantly, Lebanon has refused to grant the US permission to utilise their airspace to launch the attack. The Jordanian and Iraqi governments have joined with Lebanon in this refusal. So that would effectively rule out an attack from the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and Diego Garcia. If there is to be a strike then it will have to be orchestrated from the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile the al-Maliki government would prefer not to see Syria bombed by the US for it may stir the sectarian impulses which are already pulsating within its own borders. Perhaps Nouri al-Maliki fears a Sunni rebellion. The Shi’ite militias of Iraq have already clashed with rebel forces in the defence of Assad’s regime and have threatened further action. Likewise the Hezbollah have threatened to take action should the US start flinging cruise missiles like pebbles. On the other side of Lebanon, the Israeli government wouldn’t mind if Assad disappeared but fear what might arise in Syria if he actually does fall. The possibility of an unencumbered fight between Israel’s enemies doesn’t appeal much, but neither would free elections. Note that the Israeli airstrikes against Syria were not stepped up to take out the Assad regime; instead it seemed to be more directed towards prolonging and exacerbating the conflict. So long as Hezbollah and Iran are left vulnerable it doesn’t matter how high the mountain of Arab corpses rises.
This article was originally written for The Third Estate on September 2nd 2013.