Prem Shankar Jha

The Folly Of War In Syria

Many people have warned against an attack on Syria because it could ignite a sectarian bloodbath in the entire middle east. But I have seen no exhaustive analysis of precisely what could happen. In the paragraphs that follow I have tried to follow the logic of current developments to their logical conclusion and see where it leads. Comments will be welcome.

On Thursday September 5 the Daily Telegraph of London carried the headline “Obama will strike Syria to end war”. Only the heartlessly cynical could make such a statement; only the hopelessly naive will believe it. For the strike on Syria will be not be the end of war but a beginning. What it will end is the Syrian government’s capacity to stave off the waves of al Qaeda linked Jihadis who are flooding into Syria through Turkey from over 40 countries. And it will be the beginning of a larger civil war that will plunge the entire eastern Mediterranean littoral into a sectarian holocaust.

The Syrian people are fully aware of this: in Damascus they are mobilising for war: young men are acquiring arms; tailors are working night and day to sew uniforms for them; and families are stockpiling food and water for the grim days that lie ahead. Christians and Alawis who can afford to, are sending their families to Lebanon. “After the Americans finish bombing the Jihadis will come”, said one young man to BBC as he waved his pro-Assad wristband in front of the camera lens. We will be waiting for them. I am prepared to die for my country.”

Shias are mobilising in neighbouring Iraq. “This is Iraq 2003 all over again”, an Iraqi told the Guardian. “We will not leave our Syrian brethren to fight alone”. In Lebanon the Hezbollah is geared for battle. Its cadres have decimated fleeing Jihadis who have sought shelter in Lebanon. Today they are preparing to flood into Syria with the full backing of the bulk of the Lebanese population.

Syria’s Kurds are also being drawn into the war. Fazel Hawramy, an independent journalist from Iraqi Kurdistan reported in his blog on August 28 that about 70 Kurds belonging to the Al Qaeda linked Ansar-ul-Islam, had joined the Jabhat al Nusra and were fighting Kurds belonging to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria. The Syrian Kurds therefore already know that Al Qaeda has no intention of respecting their autonomy. This suggests that the wider war that the bombings will unleash is likely to engulf Syrian Kurdistan as well. Lastly since the PYD is the Syrian affiliate of the powerful Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, the fighting can spread not only to sections of Turkey’s 22 million Alawites but to its 11 million Kurds as well.

Obama’s administration cannot be unaware of these dangers, but believes that it will be able to extract a win-win result for itself and its principal ally, Israel. A strong but limited missile strike on Syria, it believes, will weaken the Assad regime without giving the Jihadis an outright victory. The prolonged civil war that will follow will eliminate most of the Jihadis, weaken the Hezbollah and bleed Syria into impotence, leaving Israel the undisputed master of the eastern Mediterranean. It will also send an unambiguous signal to Iran on what will happen to it if it pursues its nuclear weapons programme.

The arrogance that underlies these calculations is breathtaking: indeed this is power gone berserk for it presupposes a capacity to control the outcome of war that, history has shown, does not exist. How can Obama and his planners be so confident that their air-cum-missile strike will draw no response from the Syrian armed forces? How can they be so sure that it will be ineffective? Iraq’s response was ineffective because 12 years of sanctions had left its armed forces without aircraft, guns, ammunition, and missiles. Libya’s was ineffective because the country was tiny, militarily isolated and taken by surprise.

Syria, by contrast has had days of warning. It has a battle hardened army, an array of sophisticated Russian missiles including an upgraded version of the Yakhont anti-ship missile and, just possibly, a few operational batteries of the S-300. What is more, unlike Libya, it will not be cyber-blind. Seven Russian warships are stationed along the Syrian coast, ready to feed it real time information on American ship movements and missile launches.

Can Obama be sure that Syria will not succeed in sinking a single American ship or bringing down a single aircraft? And if it does, how will a President who feels too politically weak to disregard taunts about his inability to enforce an imaginary ‘red line’, face the taunts that will be hurled at him when American soldiers are killed and ships or aircraft destroyed ?

Can he be sure that Iran will not join in the battle; that Baghdad will not give safe passage to Iranian and Iraqi fighters, and Russians will not send ships loaded with S-300 and other deadly missiles to Syria, daring the US to stop them?

To forecast what is likely to happen in Syria one needs to look not at Iraq or Libya but Kosovo . When NATO first drew up plans for bombing Yugoslav forces in Kosovo it had expected to use 40 aircraft and bomb Kosovo for two weeks. But when its supposedly deadly precision bombing damaged or destroyed no more than 20 percent of Yugoslavia’s guns and armour in Kosovo the NATO commander General Wesley Clarke was compelled to seek permission to widen his attack. As a result by mid-April, 1999, three weeks after the bombing began, NATO had committed 1000 aircraft to a non-stop bombing of Kosovo and the rest of Serbia.

In the next fifty days, NATO bombers flew nearly 6,000 bombing missions, dropped 20,000 bombs, knocked out half of Serbia and Montenegro’s airports, all of their oil refining capacity, 31 bridges (including all but two over the Danube), seventy percent of its power supply, two railway systems that linked Serbia to Kosovo, and most of its telecommunications system. By early May 1999 these raids had already killed 1200 civilians and seriously injured another 5,000. The total number of bombs dropped exceeded those dropped on Iraq during the 1991 gulf war. The result: an independent Kosovo —a semi criminal state whose revenues are derived largely from the trans-shipment of narcotics from Asia to Europe.

The longer that Obama bombs Syria, the more certain will a Jihadi victory become. This will upset the US and Israel’s calculations and become the starting point of a much more intense terrorist war that will engulf Jordan, Egypt and, ultimately Israel itself. The precedent for understanding this is Afghanistan 1991. Between 1980 and 1991 around 16,000 Arab Mujahideen graduated from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri’s Beit al Maqtab. After the Russians withdrew, some 2,800 to 3,000 remained behind in Pakistan and around ten thousand headed for home. Within months these plunged Egypt, Libya, and Algeria into civil wars that have still not ended. Many of them , however, became the first mercenaries in the new global army of Islam and headed for Bosnia and Chechnya.

A Jihadi victory in Syria willleave 10,000 to 15,000 foreign jihadis ( John Kerry’s estimate) unemployed penniless and unwanted. With shattered economies and little chance of finding a job at home few will wish, or be allowed, to return to their home countries. Their only option will be to find another holy war to fight. As Osman, a Kurdish member of Jabhat al Nusra, wrote to his brother in Halabja shortly before his death, “Once the fight is over here [in Syria], we will go anywhere the kuffar are fighting against Muslims.”

Al Qaeda and its numerous affiliates, like the Hizbut Tahrir, have never made any secret of their ultimate goal, which is to liberate Al Quds (Jerusalem) and the Al Aqsa mosque. This requires the destruction of Israel. The easiest way to Israel lies through Jordan and the Sinai. So these Islamist mercenaries will target the strongly pro-west half-British monarchy in Jordan and the tottering, army-backed, secular regime in Egypt. In both countries the influx of several thousand battle-hardened fighters who are willing to die for Islam will tilt the scales against the survival of the government.

Obama’s intervention will not therefore ‘end the war in Syria’ but ignite a far larger bloodbath. The death toll will not be counted in thousands but millions. And when it ends there is a more than even chance that the entire region will be under Al Qaeda’s sway. Should this happen Israel’s survival will become doubtful, for it will be surrounded. Its hostile borders will be ten times longer and will therefore become well-nigh indefensible. Iran will then be the least of its worries.

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