The world digs deeper into Syria

Here I am in today’s Crikey on the apparent escalation of the Syrian conflict. Even I have difficulty striking a note of optimism:

This is starting to look a lot like a proxy war between Russia and the West. No great historical imagination is needed to conjure visions of Afghanistan in the 1980s (). That country has never recovered from the devastation wrought then, and there’s no reason to think that escalation in Syria would be any less destructive.

But if Russia and the West can make war, they can also make peace. If the Syrian combatants on both sides become dependent on outside help, that gives those outsiders the power to bring them to the negotiating table if they want to.

I don’t think the position is hopeless; I remain convinced, as I say, that “Western and Russian interests in Syria are not fundamentally incompatible.” But prospects at the moment look pretty bleak.

At least I’m not as downbeat as Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, who mourns the loss of the Middle East’s secular dictators and blames the west for their demise. I usually like Jenkins’s stuff, and some of what he says here is sensible – I think he’s quite right, for example, about the consequences of overstating the threat from Al-Qa’eda, and it’s certainly true that western military intervention in the region (especially Iraq, although he doesn’t stress that much) has had some awful consequences.

But the idea that relying on people like Bashar Al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and the Shah of Iran to keep order in the Middle East was a sustainable model is just absurd. The west is blameworthy not for pulling the rug out from under them, but for having propped them up for so long.

Their tyranny was not just morally offensive, it also contributed directly to the rise of fundamentalism. Indeed in recent years that was often a deliberate strategy on the tyrants’ part; liberal or democratic opposition was more ruthlessly suppressed, since it might otherwise attract western support, while the fundamentalists enjoyed a grudging toleration. It’s true that in the short term their countries were kept free from Islamist rule, but the association of secularism with brutal dictatorships was a long-term PR disaster.

That, not the Arab Spring, is what destroyed (or at least damaged) “secular politics”. We are all now living with the consequences of that mistake.

Jenkins says, with some justice, that “War holds a terrible appeal for democratic leaders.” Nonetheless, the spread of democracy is the most effective means anyone has ever found for combating the scourge of war. Arguing that democracy is unsuitable for the Middle East is a large part of what got us into such a mess in the first place.

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