Syria, as a united entity, exists only on the map. On the ground, it is fractured between competing factions. By some estimates, up to 10,000 foreign jihadists, from over 60 countries, are today operating in Syria. These men haven’t congregated in Syria to topple Assad: they have gathered there to establish a theocratic state. Despite dictatorial rule, Syria has been the Middle East’s most enduring ethno-religious mosaic. One day in Damascus last summer, I breakfasted with a Sunni cleric, lunched with an Armenian Christian family, and had tea in the evening with a Jewish pensioner. None of them was free in the Western-sense of the word; but they had rarely witnessed the bigotry that religious minorities must live with in nearby Egypt. In the context of the Middle East, this means a lot.
Still, in the early months of the uprising many religious minorities joined in the demand for change. But soon, the rebellion became suffused with fighters sympathetic to or affiliated with al-Qaeda. The most formidable fighters among the opposition today are cut from the same ideological cloth as the men who drove the planes into the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001. This is why religious minorities, particularly members of Syria’s ancient Christian community, have fled the territories controlled by the rebels. From Homs alone, 80, 000 Christians were “cleansed” by militant rebel forces. Beheading, a phenomenon unknown in Syria, is now a common form of punishment in some rebel-controlled territories. Alcohol is banned. Women have been forced into the veil.
I mention none of this to draw attention away from the savagery of the Assad regime: only to emphasise that there is hardly a “good” side in this conflict.
By intervening now to inflict limited punishment on Assad because chemical weapons have been used, the U.S. is erecting a precedent which could be exploited in the future by the more unscrupulous factions of the opposition looking to provoke further interventions. The knowledge that the West will intervene when chemical weapons are used will create an incentive for their reintroduction by those who would benefit from such an intervention. This template will produce deadly temptations. As the novelist Amitav Ghosh, who has spent long years studying insurgencies in Asia, has written, in civil wars “the very prospect of intervention” often becomes a stimulus for the “escalation of violence” by the weaker side.
So what will the U.S. do when it is next confronted with videos of fresh massacres by chemical weapons? Can it refuse to live up to the precedent it is now establishing if, say, 10,000 Syrians were killed in another chemical attack after President Obama’s first “limited intervention” has concluded? Will the U.S. continue to wage “limited strikes” every time there is an outrage – or will it eventually seek to overthrow Assad?
To rid Syria of Assad’s dictatorship and prevent it from falling into the hands of jihadists, the U.S. will have to commit itself to Syria for at least a decade – fighting the jihadists, subduing Assad and his allies in Hezbollah, and protecting Israel and preserving Lebanon’s fragile peace. Is there any appetite for this?
Intervening in Syria will perhaps pacify President Obama’s conscience. But in Syria, there’s every chance that it will escalate the conflict. Ultimately, limited engagement, by tantalizing the losing side in the Syrian civil war with a brief punitive entry on its behalf, will only hasten the creation of conditions that will eventually suck the U.S. back into the conflict.
Kapil Komireddi is a journalist based in London.