Portents All Bad for Syrian Bloodbath

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The killings in Syria are going to get much, much worse, and they are a dreadful human tragedy, but they also have strategic consequences, which are important to understand.

First, it's worth noting the absolute lack of any Australian influence in the Middle East.

I am an uncompromising Asia-first man. Asia is our most important region, but the Middle East is also hugely important to us, for economic and strategic reasons, and because it generates a huge share of both terrorists and boatpeople.

The Gillard government used such justifications when Australia became the third-largest aid donor to the Libyan rebels who ousted Colonel Gaddafi.

But as shown by the outrageous imprisonment of the Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor in Libya as an official of the International Criminal Court, this aid has bought us zero influence in Libya.

Soft power it wasn't. Nor do we even have an embassy there to help Australians, warn them what to expect, help the new government on a moderate path or gather general intelligence.

Nor do we have an embassy in Syria, now at the heart of the Arab struggle. Nor do we have an embassy where the Arab Spring began, Tunisia, nor in its troubled neighbour, Algeria, nor the country that has weathered the storm best, Morocco.

Jeffrey Grey, in his superb military history of Australia, argues that we have had more direct military influence in the Middle East than anywhere else.

We are willing to waste hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money on aid to the Middle East and Africa, and regularly to send our military there, but we are determined never to have serious diplomatic representation in the Middle East. Thus we have no influence.

Apart from the intelligence our allies give us as charity, our government knows about as much about the Arab Spring as any well-informed newspaper reader who also has access to CNN.

Yet in Syria, the Arab Spring may yet have its most strategically consequential outcome. The strategic dangers in Syria are greater than anywhere in the Arab world except Egypt.

On balance, it is right that Western policy seek the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad's brutal regime, which has killed nearly 15,000 of its own people in the past 16 months. The second consideration is strategic.

Syria is Iran's only state ally in the Middle East and the greatest regional danger is the emerging Iran-led coalition, which could eventually involve Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Shia minorities in the Persian Gulf states. Depriving Iran of its key ally is a sound objective.

But the dangers are acute. Who gets Syria's chemical and biological weapons if there is chaos and breakdown? Then there is the nature of the Syrian opposition, the tactics Assad is now pursuing, and the overall regional context.

Increasingly, the regional context is a violent recrudescence of the ancient Sunni v Shia conflict. Assad is now working to turn the Syrian civil war into an overt sectarian bloodbath, as we have seen in the recent massacres of Sunni villages located near Alawite villages.

The situation has about it a lot of the feeling of Lebanon at the start of its civil war.

Isn't this a losing strategy, you might ask, as Sunnis are the majority in Syria? Not necessarily.

Sunni Arabs only make up about two-thirds of Syria. Assad's ruling Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, accounts for about 12 per cent. There are a lot of other minorities: Christians, Druze, orthodox Shia and the Kurds, who are Sunni but not Arab. The Alawites have generally supported Assad. He is not without a social base as Hosni Mubarak was in Egypt. The non-Alawite minorities have generally been happy enough with Assad.

His regime is secular and some of them, especially Christians, did well in the Syrian middle class.

By making the conflict sectarian, Assad does three things. He consolidates Alawite control of vital areas of the country. He binds the whole Alawite community to his fate, because Alawites now know there will be fearsome revenge killings of their people if Assad is toppled. And he radicalises the Sunni opposition, which may even have the perverse consequence of keeping some Sunnis in the Assad tent.

The Syrian opposition is disorganised and extremely mixed. This is the season of Muslim Brotherhood success in the Arab world and the brotherhood is very active in Syria, even though many of its leaders were imprisoned or killed there in the past.

A certain number, probably 1000 or more, of international jihadists, some with al-Qa'ida connections, have flooded into Syria as the latest jihad battleground. Expect more. This dynamic, ironically, takes advantage of networks Assad himself set up to send extremists into Iraq.

The Syrian opposition has not been able to hold extensive territory in Syria, but it is becoming more militarily competent as it receives money from Saudi Arabia and one or two other Gulf states. This has the effect of ensuring the leading Syrian oppositionists are extreme in their Islamism.

Where is America in all this? As recently as five years ago, you would have expected Washington to take a leading hand in promoting moderate Syrian leaders.

There have been some scattered reports, of unknowable credibility, of clandestine US assistance to the Syrian opposition on the ground. But the US is not a significant player, which means whatever moderate oppositionists there are will receive no significant outside help.

This, sadly, is a general sign of the decline of US influence in the Middle East. Outside Israel, Washington's closest ally in the region was Egypt's Mubarak, now dying and going mad in jail as he begins his life sentence.

No doubt Mubarak deserved to fall, but Arab political culture, such as it is, stresses calculations of raw power.

The contrast many Arabs draw is with the way Russia is sticking to its Syrian ally. Moscow has substantial interests in Syria. It has a naval base there. It sells Syria a lot of arms. Syria is its only Middle East ally and there is a long, independent economic relationship.

More than that, Russia sees its prestige tied up in its loyalty to an ally. There are limits, of course.

Russia will not embark on World War III to save Assad, but it cares little for Western opinion and not at all for Syrian human rights. Assad is not friendless, nor are the forces against him.

The West has never been less able to influence an outcome. The portents are all bad.

Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
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