How catastrophe was manufactured in Syria

The year end image etched on my mind is not of the US-Russian chess games in Syria but of how I saw the crisis being manufactured in that blighted land. Let me take advantage of the New Year and revisit stories to give you a perspective.

On December 10, 2010, Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire after his trawler with meagre merchandize of grocery was upturned by a Tunisian policewoman, igniting what came to be known as the Arab Spring.

The uprising took a toll of Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. When the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia returned from convalescence in Europe, he could not believe his eyes. Two American friends had been dethroned. Who would be next?

In panic he charged off to his Kingdom. He was going to take no chances. Just in case his own people turned against him, he rained $135 billion on the people, a sort of opiate to keep them away from revolutionary temptation. No monarchies in the region would be allowed to fall, he declared.

If protective walls were to be erected around Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, where would the tidal wave of Arab Spring be directed?

All the countries listed above have been squarely in the American camp since the end of Second World War in 1945. Iraq, Syria, Libya were all in the Soviet camp. Therefore as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, the plan to settle scores with the recalcitrants was set into motion by launching operation Desert Storm in Iraq in February 1991 ostensibly to force Saddam Hussain to vacate Kuwait which he had occupied. The more important reason was to signal America’s arrival as the sole superpower.

The “sole superpower” moment did not last long. Economic downturn since 2008, the rise of China, resurgent Russia, decline of Europe, all contributed to a world in flux. In a world so configured, regime change in Syria became a difficult proposition.

Why was regime change in Damascus required? Because that would break the Iran, Syria, Hezbullah, Hamas chain. Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia were keen. It would weaken Iran, which Israel and Saudi Arabia saw as an existential threat.

Also, neither Israel nor the Saudis were keen to have in their vicinity efficient dictatorships as possible role models.

In 2003, the Sole Superpower had occupied Iraq. 2011 was another world. With Afghanistan, Iraq, the economy not going well, the plan for Syria was less grand.

Led by Saudi Arabia, countries abutting Syria would nurture anti-Assad groups inside Syria. The US, France and Britain would provide military training and, of course, arms.

I was on my way to West Asia when a remarkable article by James Glanz and John Markoff in The New York Times confirmed my worst fears. It read:

“The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy ‘shadow’ internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.” Washington was four square behind dissidents in Syria.

“The effort includes secretive projects to create independent cell phone networks inside foreign countries, as well as one operation out of a spy novel in a fifth-floor shop on L street in Washington, where a group of young entrepreneurs who look as if they could be in a garage band are fitting deceptively innocent-looking hardware into a prototype ‘Internet in a suitcase’ – all part of what is being called ‘Liberation technology movement’.

“The suitcase can be secreted across a border and quickly set up to allow wireless communication over a wide area with a link to the global Internet.

“The State Department is financing the creation of stealth wireless networks that would enable activists to communicate outside the reach in countries like Iran, Syria and Libya.”

This was the state of play when I found myself in Damascus in the company of Edward Lionel Peck, an Arabist and a former US diplomat with 32 years of experience in the Arab world.

We had driven to Hama in West Central Syria which has traditionally been a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold. The President’s father, Hafez al Assad, had once brutally quelled a rebellion in Hama, killing thousands.

The place looked sullen but under control. We were advised against visiting Homs, on the Lebanese border because of disturbed conditions. This was in August 2011. In other words, Syrian restiveness fuelled by outside help was beginning to destablize parts of the country.

One had to be careful to venture out far from Damascus. That is why I was astonished that US ambassador Robert Stephen Ford and his French counterpart were driving to the most disturbed areas of the country. They would collect groups and address them. It was extraordinary. Here were foreign diplomats openly stirring up trouble in a foreign land.

Ed Peck, quite as amazed at the spectacle his country’s ambassador was making of himself, wrote the following to a friend: “I have been dismayed by the accolades and support given to Ambassador Ford, our man in – and now out of Syria, for stepping well out of the traditional and appropriate role of a diplomat and actively encouraging the revolt/insurrection/sectarian strife/outside meddling, call it what you will, that is still going on. It is easy to imagine the US reaction if an ambassador from anywhere were to engage in even distantly related activities here. I fear my country remains somewhat more than merely insensitive, and is sliding into just plain rampant and offensive arrogance.”

The Syrian story will be with us for years. Next time Syria pops out of the TV screens or the newspapers, do reflect on this new year retrospective on how the catastrophe was manufactured.

(Saeed Naqvi is a commentator on political and diplomatic affairs. The views expressed are personal.)

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