x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Outsiders have not improved life in either Syria or Iraq

Ten years after the US invasion, Iraq is divided and ravaged. Syria is moving in the same direction.

This month Iraq and Syria are both noting, but not celebrating, anniversaries of violence that transformed the two societies.

For Iraq, it was the US invasion of March 19, 2003. Ten years ago, most Iraqis wanted to overthrow Saddam Hussein. But few, if any, Iraqis welcomed the chaos that followed. Ten years later, Iraq is divided and ravaged. Estimates of the number killed by the invaders in the subsequent resistance to occupation and in sectarian fighting range up to one million.

Most of the ancient Christian community has been exiled. Shiites and Sunnis have moved into separate walled ghettos. Electricity, hospitals, schools, roads and other infrastructure have yet to be restored to pre-war levels.

Apart from the autonomous Kurdish region, corruption is crippling the government. Violence has not abated. Even the man photographed smashing Saddam's statue in Baghdad's Firdos Square in March of 2003, Kadom Al-Joubri, told The Observer last week: "Then we had only one dictator. Now we have hundreds."

For Syria, meanwhile, this is the second anniversary of a war that began with peaceful demonstrations. In mid-March 2011, the people of Dera'a protested against the torture of children arrested for writing anti-government graffiti.

Their demands were not revolutionary: dismissal of Dera'a's governor and the trial of those responsible for torture.

But for the people to demand, rather than beg, for anything from their government had violent consequences. As the protests spread to Damascus, Homs and the rest of the country the regime responded, predictably, with gunfire, arrests and torture. But many of the demonstrators sought to continue peaceful opposition that would garner more and more public support, even at the risk of their lives.

Other oppositionists believed that only weapons would bring change; they found outsiders willing to subsidise their methods.

Regimes that were anything but models of democracy, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar, poured in weapons and money. Turkey opened its border to arms, rebels and refugees. Clandestine training and logistical help came from the US, Britain and France. Protests turned to civil war.

As in Iraq, whose monuments and museums were ravaged, Syria's historic souqs and castles were burnt. Alawites and Sunnis, whose villages had coexisted through ages, turned on one another with Balkan ferocity. Christians were caught in the middle. Those who could do so fled.

The mosaic of cultures that made for Syria's richness is being lost.

The rebels calculated that, as in Libya, Nato would ensure their swift victory. The US decided that the regime was so unpopular that the rebels would overthrow it without Nato help. Both were wrong.

Yet neither is taking the obvious alternative to the failed policy of violence: a negotiated settlement.

Hillary Clinton, when she was US secretary of state, repeatedly said, as she did when Kofi Annan urged discussions between Bashar Assad and his armed opponents, "Assad will still have to go."

Her successor, John Kerry, while promising $60 million (Dh220m) in ostensibly non-lethal supplies to the rebels, has taken a more nuanced stance:

"The world wants to stop the killing," Mr Kerry said. "And we want to be able to see Mr Assad and the Syrian opposition come to the table for the creation of a transitional government according to the framework that was created in Geneva, the Geneva protocol, which requires mutual consent on both sides to the formation of that transitional government."

That is a reasonable approach, but no one is taking action to bring it about. Meanwhile, Britain and France urged the European Union, without success, to lift its arms embargo; they threaten to send weapons to the rebels anyway if the EU won't.

Russia and Iran send weapons to the regime, and at least a half-dozen countries are meddling on the other side. Does anyone have the Syrians' well-being in mind?

Thomas Hardy, in his novel The Woodlanders, wrote of the knowledge required of anyone interfering with the lives of the people in his fictional Hintock:

"He must know all about those invisible ones of the days gone by, whose feet have traversed the fields which look so grey from his windows; recall whose creaking plough has turned those sods from time to time; whose hands planted the trees that form a crest to the opposite hill; whose horses and hounds have torn through that underwood; what birds affect that particular brake; what bygone domestic dramas of love, jealousy, revenge or disappointment have been enacted in the cottages, the mansions, the street or on the green."

Who in Washington, Moscow, Tehran, Riyadh or Doha has that kind of understanding for Syria? Who among the politicians or dictators of those countries foresees the consequences of their inflaming Syrian passions with more weapons and money?

Hardy had in mind an outsider with no knowledge of Hintock's "bygone domestic dramas," a doctor named Edred Fitzpiers. Fitzpiers was treating the aged John South for an unnamed malady that appeared to be related to his fear of a tree growing outside his window. The doctor ordered: "The tree must be cut down, or I won't answer for his life."

South woke the next morning and, seeing the hated tree gone, died. Fitzpiers said only, "D - d if my remedy hasn't killed him!"


Charles Glass is the author of several books on the Middle East, including Tribes with Flags and The Northern Front: An Iraq War Diary. He is also a publisher under the London imprint Charles Glass Books