It must have been deeply frustrating for the United States and its allies when malleable governments in Tunisia and Egypt were swept away by the ‘Arab Spring’, while unfriendly regimes in Libya and Syria seemed immune to popular disapproval. These were governments which did have the merit of being secular in the face of regional pressures from Islamists, but they were marred by Socialist tendencies and a reluctance to embrace the principles of free market Capitalism. So, I’ve no doubt that Western agencies have been active in promoting and facilitating dissent there, using methods tried and tested in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
In Libya there was the added incentive of controlling the flow of aspiring immigrants from Africa, hence the French enthusiasm for that intervention, and it proved possible to get United Nations’ approval to ‘protect civilians’, as a prelude to attacking Libyan government forces from the air. Thus, regime change was achieved with no Western personnel coming home in body bags, and another ‘brutal dictator’ was humiliated for the TV cameras. A similar strategy won’t work in Syria however, partly because Russia and China have learnt the price of lending their support at the UN, and partly because of the greater complexity of the competing interests which President Assad has been containing until now.
It’s difficult to believe that George Bush was told nothing of religious and ethnic divisions in the Muslim world before he blundered into Iraq, but its clear that public opinion, then and now, is woefully ill-informed. No one who relied on our mass media would know how Shia or Sunni minorities came to hold power in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and elsewhere – the legacy of the collapsed Ottoman Empire and manipulations of French and British administrators have been consigned to history. Yet the boundaries they drew and the rulers they imported are crucial to understanding subsequent events up to the present, and the source of tensions which every leader in the modern Middle East has to manage. Most notably the indigenous Arabs were denied the nation they thought they’d been promised while the Jews of Europe got theirs, eventually.
So there’s something deeply cynical about preaching ‘democracy’ to these fragile states, where winner takes all elections are bound to reinforce divisions, and trust in the electoral process is inevitably low. In contrast, the West has celebrated South Africa’s one-party state as a rainbow coalition and belatedly recognised that power sharing was the only practical solution to Northern Ireland’s troubles. Yet dissidents in Syria are encouraged to seek revolution rather than gradual change and to transform protest into violent resistance, in the hope that Western governments will once again provide the means for military victory. Meanwhile, the media maintain the tempo, with reports of brutal repression and demands that ‘something must be done’.
Syria’s tragedy is one more example of interference in the internal affairs of states whose sovereignty ought to be respected, despite Western disapproval of their current government. The democratic institutions we value were not achieved overnight, not just the voting but equally the separation of powers and protection of free expression – it was one hundred and thirty-seven years after the American Revolution that Americans adopted universal suffrage. If we genuinely wanted to assist the peoples of the Middle East towards new forms of government we would be working with the leaders they have, rather than demonising and undermining them. Instead, I fear that the priority is the pursuit of short-term Western interests, whatever the cost to the people of the region.