Syria and the Sands of Time

By Jay Holmes

Since I published my last update on Syria in late November, the conflict remains in overtime, waiting for a tie breaker. It’s easy enough to watch the events play out from this safe distance, but for the 22.5 million people living in Syria, things must seem a bit more urgent.

Looking at the human side of the conflict leaves one with a grim view. Since our update, Syrian security forces have killed more than a thousand additional protesters. That indicates the death rate for Syrian protesters, according to UN figures, has sadly risen from approximately 15 civilians killed per day to 25 civilians killed per day.

photo by James Gordon wikimedia commons

photo by James Gordon
wikimedia commons

Bashar Assad, Syria’s dictator, would quickly point out that not all of those killed were unarmed protesters, but it’s clear that most were. According to UN figures, the death toll for Syrian protesters has now surpassed 5,000 lives.

Some Western observers and a few Arab observers are claiming that the UN figure is likely less than half of the actual number of protesters killed. In addition to the over 5,000, there are, depending on who you ask, somewhere between 7,000 and 40,000 prisoners confined in miserable conditions in Syrian prisons. Numbers aside, it is clear that, in spite of the presence of 65 Arab League observers (who are escorted by Assad’s security forces), the Assad regime has become more willing to kill his unarmed citizens.

To consider those deaths from another perspective, the deaths of protesters in Syria have now surpassed the total number of US combat deaths during the 2003-2011 Iraq War. The faces of the dead protesters are less visible to us, thanks to the tight media control in Syria. But if we think of how anguished we have been about our losses in Iraq, we can understand the growing anxiety of expatriate Syrians who have families in Syria.

I went to the trouble of sending a polite and innocent journalistic query to the Syrian security forces and the Assad government via a safe intermediary, but neither has responded. My best friends and Assad’s best friends don’t have a history of playing nicely together so their lack of response is no indication of anything other than the fact that they don’t like my friends.

Speaking to the rebels is a bit easier if we’re not too particular about which random rebel we speak to. While the rebels remain in agreement that Assad should depart Syria in his jet, his yacht, or a garbage bag, there is not yet a strong consensus about what a post-Assad Syria would look like.

The hordes of the interested outside parties remain unchanged in Syria. The Arab league does not want to see a change to a regime influenced by Russia, by Western states, or by business interests other than their own. To that end, they have promised to send more observers to Syria, and they have throttled Syria’s banking system by halting trade with banks from other Arab League nations.

Iran would like to see anyone “not Sunni” in charge in Syria as long as they are willing to continue recognition of Iranian suzerainty over Syria and Lebanon. Normally, Iran would be conducting more desperate efforts to influence events in Syria because Syria is important to it for the control of Hezbollah operations in Lebanon. The Hezbollah gang has what Iran considers to be an unfortunate tendency. It often starts imagining itself to be an independent political entity capable of being all grown up without Iran. Given that Syria is 74% Sunni, and that Shiites are hard to find in Syria, Iran’s long term prospects in Syria are not looking too good.

Russia, or at least the “Putinos” in Russia, would like to see anyone of any religion or no religion in charge in Syria, as long as they happily continue purchasing vast quantities of military toys from Russian factories allegedly financially controlled by Putin and his closest Putino pals. In Putin geopolitical theory, the “new” Syria would allow an expansion of Russia’s naval base in Syria to house the imaginary vast Russian Mediterranean Fleet that Putin fantasizes about while doing whatever it his he does at night before he goes to sleep. (His poor wife….)

My guess is that, after considering the ongoing nuclear disasters at Russian Northern Fleet naval bases, the average Syrian is not going to be thrilled by the prospect of becoming Russia’s latest Naval success story. Given that the average Syrian is aware that Assad and his tiny Alawite minority could never have taken and held power in Syria without Soviet intervention, it seems likely that Syrians would love to be nobody’s naval base, and they would likely spend their defense cash any place but Russia.

Western Energy moguls would love to see vastly expanded oil pipelines built to transport Arabian and Iraqi oil to a Syrian Mediterranean port like Tartus. That would be lovely for Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. It would be lovely for energy moguls, and for western oil addicts like you and I. It would be a dark nightmare for Iran. Threatening to cut off the straits of Hormuz would be no fun for the fake mullahs running Iran if the only tankers sailing the Straits were all Iranian.

Secondarily, Western energy moguls would like to see further natural gas development in Syria with taxpayer financed foreign aid from Western nations. Why let those silly Syrians use that natural gas if you can export it to Europe at huge profits while generous Western Taxpayers finance the deal and pay huge prices for the oil? That would be crazy. So who was behind the recent oil line attack in Syria? I can’t be sure, but the attack suited Assad, Iran and nobody else.

When energy moguls are not watching, other Western moguls would like Assad to be gone by any method that does not involve them having to spend cash, expensive cruise missiles, and political capital. Western governments would like a safe transfer of Syria’s nerve gas stockpiles (some of which once belonged to his neighbor, Saddam Hussein) for destruction and disposal. A Syrian government run by the majority of Syrians and not by gangsters claiming to be religious authorities would make the West happy.

So what abut the people doing the bleeding in all of this? What do the Syrians want?

Since having an opinion has not yet been legalized in Syria, and since a departure by Assad won’t guarantee freedom and justice for them, it’s hard to know for sure. I am willing to make a few guesses. They would like their security forces to stop killing them. They would like unemployment rates lowered. The religious leaning rebels in Homs would like a Sunni theocracy, but they are in the minority and might not be able to pull it off. If Assad leaves, dies, or in the unlikely event that he becomes a nice person, Syrians might be able to form a working parliamentary government.

And Bashar Assad? What he wants today is to not star in a you tube video about how unskilled Syrian teenagers dispatch nasty dictators. His long term hopes are becoming more difficult to imagine.

With Assad’s banking system crumbling and desertions from his military increasing, it’s hard to imagine a happy future for him. Assad may be using his rose colored sunglasses to see a future where Western nations are so busy with the nasty little mullahs in Iran and their uranium issues that they never intervene in Syria, and he simply remains in power.

The sands of time will continue to run, with or without Western military intervention, and Assad should know and remember that sand is always corrosive. Assad could perhaps call up the jovial director of the Venezuelan Club Commie Resort and ask if Uncle Momo’s reservation is still available. The trick would be getting from his house to Hugo Chavez’s resort without being shot in the back by the frightened and badly outnumbered clan he would be leaving behind.

Normally “Good Luck Bashar” would be a handy phrase for ending this article, but I won’t pretend to wish him any such thing. Instead, I will offer my humble best wishes to the people of Syria. In my estimation, the majority of them are decent and reasonable people. If it is left up to them, the better country that they build for themselves need not be a threat to anyone else. A Syria that concentrates on it’s own well being would be an improvement for every reasonable person concerned.

Special Edition Libya: A Coalition of the Hesitant

By Jay Holmes

As the Coalition of the Hesitant continues to exercise a “we fly, you no fly” zone over Libya today, several ironies and opportunities seem apparent to me.

Before the ink was dry on the German surrender document that ended the European phase of WWII in 1945, Western European nations started realizing that they wanted less American leadership in European affairs. The US-financed Marshall Plan that brought economic salvation to Western Europe was welcomed, but being in the position of  the recipient clarified for many Europeans the need for strong leadership in Western Europe.

France and De Gaulle tried to fill that need by distancing themselves from the NATO command structure, and by developing nuclear weapons independently of the US. England, having enjoyed a closer relationship with the US, pursued a stronger and more inclusive NATO, and most NATO member states followed that example. For one thing, the cost benefits of unified defense were undeniable, and as the Soviets grew a massive military presence in Eastern Europe, no single Western European nation was in a position to defend itself from a Soviet invasion.

In the decades since, the European desire to exercise its own foreign policy has grown increasingly strong. The lack of a massive Soviet military presence in Eastern Germany since the collapse of the Soviet Union has left Europeans understandably more willing to voice their desire for equality (or, in their view, “inherent superiority”) in world statesmanship. European governments are vigorously resisting a major opportunity for European states to exercise their leadership this week. Apparently, no Western European state is yet willing to take over political or military leadership for the coalition of forces currently arrayed against Uncle Momo Gadhafi.

Many American taxpayers are rooting for some “European Superior Statesmanship” this week. Count me in that group. From my viewpoint, it would be a triumph for world peace if Europe steps up and takes charge of the coalition that exercises the “we fly, you no fly” zone. My desire to see this happen is without my usual sarcasm and free of any negative feelings for European governments. My personal estimate is that between Sarkozy and Cameron, Europe has what it needs to lead events successfully. Though an ideal outcome may not occur in Libya, Europe has much to gain by taking control of the situation. If Europe fails to exercise leadership in the current crisis on its southern doorstep, Mideastern and African nations will be unable to ignore the message and to interpret that “message” to their own liking. Leaving someone else to blame also leaves someone else in charge.

Another opportunity that seems obvious is the opportunity for direct diplomacy with Gadhafi today. One crucial difference between Mubarak and Gadhafi is that Uncle Momo lacks an easy way out. I suggest we offer him one. Gadhafi’s absence from power in Libya would be a possible benefit to Libyans, but his carcass, itself, has no inherent value to anyone. He likely would not easily accept an extended vacation to Venezuela, or perhaps a villa in South Africa, but at some point, he might accept it as a better alternative to incineration. We have nothing to lose by making an offer. If Western European leaders wish, they could simultaneously begin to shape some simple rules for the rebels in exchange for their continued survival at the grace of Western powers. A two-page guide to the future formation of a Libyan constitution could greatly decrease Al Qaeda’s opportunity to take control in Libya.

The current “non war” in Libya need not end in chaos for Libya. A modest investment of political courage by European governments will not likely lead us all to the Garden of Eden, but it could easily avoid a decline into hell for Libya and its neighbors.

Ignore the pundits of doom. Failure is NOT preordained. As that crazy English army officer T.E. Lawrence said to his Bedouin friends, “Nothing is written.”  The price has, by and large, already been paid. Let the benefits be harvested for the betterment of Libyans and Westerners. Success is available and can be purchased with bold statesmanship.

T.E. Lawrence — “Nothing is written.”