X Close

The Arab Spring exposed America’s weakness The road to Ukraine began in Syria

A firm victory for absolute monarchy (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images)

A firm victory for absolute monarchy (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images)


May 31, 2023   8 mins

When Bashar al-Assad touched down in Riyadh last week, to be embraced by the Saudi king on the occasion of Syria’s readmittance to the Arab League, the Syrian War drew to a close, and with it the Arab Spring. His rule secure, his broken nation quiescent once again, Assad has indisputably won. Following its only tangible success, the Tunisian Revolution, being overturned by president Kais Saied’s bloodless coup, the final results are in — and, contrary to initial assumptions, they show a firm victory for absolute monarchy.

But though objectively a failure, the bloody, tangled events of the Arab Spring shaped the world of 2023. In a strange way, the war in Ukraine is downstream of the fiery suicide of a frustrated Tunisian street vendor in 2010, and all the dashed hopes and human suffering that flowed from it. The Middle East’s convulsions indeed changed the world, but not in a way anyone participating expected or intended.

As a reporter on the ground, it looked to me at first, as it did to many, as if the popular revolt across the Arab world was a vindication of Fukuyama’s much-misunderstood thesis of the arc of history inclining towards the worldwide victory of liberal democracy. Young, dynamic, idealistic protestors were leading their countries away from the autocratic regimes which had mismanaged their countries in the half century since independence from British and French colonial rule. It was the opposite of the failed attempt to impose reform that had broken Iraq: instead, long-repressed social forces from within had surfaced, ready and capable of leading their countries into a better future.

After all, within 10 days, Tunisia’s dictatorship had fallen following a wave of popular protest; within weeks, the protests had spread across North Africa and then the wider Arab world. In Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, in even Saudi Arabia and Jordan, it seemed as if the oppressive dynastic regimes of the Arab world were about to collapse under the weight of history. Instead, the Arab Spring represented the collision between our guiding myths and objective reality; rather than the apotheosis of the post-Cold War liberal order, it marked the beginning of its decline.

The vast and tragic gulf between what the protestors hoped for and what they got is, simply, a bitter lesson in reality. There were always two Arab Springs: the optimistic narrative of what was happening, boosted by a thousand high-flown journalistic comment pieces from abroad, and the darker, more complex realities on the ground. Like Russian families in Anna Karenina, each country’s own Arab Spring failed for its own unhappy reasons, tied to the hard, immutable facts of demography, history and power. The widening fissure between idealistic Western narratives, drawn from the teleological assumptions of unexamined liberalism, and the brutal reality helped shatter the post-Cold War order: but it was ordinary Arab civilians who paid the price. What became of the Arab Spring therefore holds many lessons for us, if only we are willing to confront them.

The Arab world is not so different to home, after all. Consider how Egypt’s 2011 revolution, and the coup which undid it two years later, uncannily foreshadowed the political convulsions of our own Western societies. In Egypt, it was the self-professed liberals who supported Sisi’s coup. Notionally committed to democracy and liberalism, Egypt’s liberals disliked the results of the country’s first-ever democratic elections and did everything they could do to undo them. The winners were seen as backwards provincials, dangerous social conservatives who wanted to return the country to a mythical, idealised past. Justifying their stance against a democratic result they detested, they created elaborate conspiracy theories involving malicious foreign actors, which invalidated the election results and justified any action necessary to revoke its results. Tracking the course of the Arab Spring, then, may help us to understand our own political order with greater clarity.

The first myth to be shattered was of the power of protest to express and impose the popular will. In reality, in every case in which Arab Spring protests successfully unseated rulers without external intervention, it was the armed forces who did it, and not people power alone. In Egypt, it was the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, which first refused to fire on the protestors and then unseated Hosni Mubarak. The vast crowds in Tahrir Square, so inspiring and appealing to both local and international media, merely provided a colourful and dramatic justification for what was objectively a military coup. In Tunisia, the dictator Ben Ali had delegated the job of political oppression to his police force — he mistrusted the country’s small, professional army — and in the process unwittingly sowed the seeds of his own downfall. It was Tunisia’s army, under the guidance of military chief General Rachid Ammar, and not the protestors on the streets, which surrounded the presidential palace and forced him to flee after just 10 days of protests. The Tunisian revolution, essentially, was won in the barracks long before it ever began in the streets.

Yet the myth of people power unseating tyrants took hold across the West as well as the Arab World, encouraging demonstrators to take to the streets and pushing Western governments to rhetorically declare support for events about which they in fact felt deeply ambivalent. Browbeaten into military intervention in Libya against his better judgment by Cameron and Sarkozy’s desire to place themselves on the right side of history, Obama took Libya’s post-war chaos as a warning not to intervene in other Arab countries. But regional powers such as Qatar and Turkey, as well as civilian demonstrators in Syria and the Western commentators supporting them, erroneously drew the opposite conclusion: that after enough bloodshed, the United States would eventually find itself forced to intervene, unseating Assad and installing some form of representative government. This mismatch between hope and reality, empty rhetoric and action, would be tragic for Syria’s people, condemning them to a decade of war and destruction.

Before the war began in 2011, few observers had expected the protests to spread to Syria: sandwiched between the cautionary examples of Lebanon and Iraq, Syrians were assumed to be wary of state breakdown in a society riven by division. The armed forces, tied to the regime through ethnic solidarity and the fear of Sunni vengeance, in the case of its disproportionate numbers of Alawites, and through the patronage granted by secure middle-class housing projects in the case of the Sunni bulk of the officer corps, remained loyal to the ruling dynasty, eliminating the prospect of a military coup. Yet competing regional powers flooded Syria’s 1,500-odd armed rebel groups with weapons, condemning an already poorly-coordinated uprising to internal fracture and division from the start.

The country’s largely apolitical Sunni urban middle class stayed dormant: indeed, it was the Sunni middle classes of Aleppo and Damascus who made up the bulk of 2015’s refugee flow to Europe, voting with their feet to stay out of the conflict entirely. The country’s Christian, Kurdish, Alawite, Druze and Shia minorities, which feared Sunni dominance more than they hated the regime, presented an impenetrable hurdle to rebel success: in preserving Assad’s rule, Syria’s demography really was the revolution’s destiny. As regime crackdowns on Sunni protestors hardened attitudes, the war developed a sectarian dynamic quite alien to the explicitly inclusive aims of the original protest committees. Government warnings that the rebels were dominated by jihadists became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as rebel groups relied on jihadists’ superior commitment and discipline to win battles in the field, then found themselves outcompeted by them in providing stable governance and imposing order.

Unable to dislodge Assad through protest at the beginning of the revolution, the Syrian revolutionaries were forced to rely on a deus ex machina, American military intervention, which would never come. All sides were haunted, in different ways, by the Libyan debacle: trying to summon Western intervention into being, the rebels attempted to recreate the Libyan rebel capital and supply hub of Benghazi through their failed attempt to seize Aleppo, frittering away their limited resources in a gruelling years-long siege and counter-siege that would see the country’s commercial capital destroyed. The already intransigent Assad, seeing Gaddafi’s fate, became more determined than ever to neither give up power nor make concessions. Washington, meanwhile, traumatised by Iraq’s post-invasion carnage and fearing a rerun of Libya’s post-war chaos, resolved to stay away from a direct intervention, hoping that it could feed the rebels enough weapons to force concessions from Assad without bringing about his total collapse. Forced by moral and political considerations to be seen to do something, but fearful of doing too much, America’s haphazard drip of arms supplies was just enough to prolong the war interminably without ever allowing rebel victory. In this sense, the unintended anarchy that followed Gaddafi’s downfall  had already lost the Syrian rebels the war before their own revolution ever truly began.

But the Libyan example would also have another consequence, now playing out on our own continent: Putin was furious that the limited intervention to ground Gaddafi’s air force to prevent a massacre in Benghazi, reluctantly agreed to by Russia at the UN, evolved into a months-long campaign of close air support for Libya’s rebels, ending in Gaddafi’s miserable roadside execution. Eager to avoid a repetition in what was once a Soviet client state, Putin gambled that Russia could outcompete the US in Syria: carefully devised American escalation in training and arms deliveries could be thwarted by direct Russian intervention. Fine words and shiny new weapons would eventually prove no match for Russia’s firmer will and higher appetite for risk: through intervening in Syria, Russia could hasten the end of America’s unipolar moment.

In Syria, Putin’s gamble turned out to be correct: Assad’s victory was indeed a historic turning point, marking Russia’s return to the world stage as an actor able to direct the course of history. While American officials insisted there was no military solution to the Syrian war, Russia promptly delivered one. The Russian intervention in 2015 made Assad’s victory inevitable, allowing America to turn with some relief to the campaign against Isis, then ravaging European capitals, and to quietly divide the country into two spheres of influence separated by the river Euphrates. As Putin foresaw, even America’s final chosen proxies in Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Defence Force, would find themselves abandoned over time as the White House’s revolving door upended any coherent long-term planning. In a hasty rewriting of recent history, the fractious rebel alliance which took part in Turkey’s invasion of north-eastern Syria, which included factions previously armed by the US, was now denounced by Washington as renegade war criminals. In Russia’s eyes, the uncertainties inherent in America’s increasingly chaotic democratic system were the greatest vulnerability for Washington’s allies. Rather than the arc of history leaning towards liberal democracy, the abrupt policy shifts inherent to its system meant that liberal democracy itself was its own greatest strategic weakness.

Far more than the Afghanistan withdrawal that inspired such liberal angst, it was the lessons Putin drew from the Arab Spring wars that surely encouraged him to invade Ukraine. For Russia, after all, Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution was as much an unwelcome European outcrop of the Arab Spring as of the post-Soviet colour revolutions he feared, as West-leaning demonstrators in the streets took down a Moscow-friendly ruler, with Putin warning darkly that unsavoury local actors were in fact controlling events on the ground. Russia’s first invasion, using local proxies and quasi-deniable Little Green Men in 2014, at the height of the Syrian war, was a success. In 2022, after the effectiveness of direct Russian intervention had seemingly been proved in Syria, Putin would try again, this time openly and in full force.

Again, Putin gambled that American rhetorical support for pro-Western demonstrators would not be matched by sufficient action to outweigh his fait accompli; again, he anticipated that America’s voting public, cynical of military intervention after the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, would have no appetite for a risky foreign adventure. Though Putin’s hopes of swiftly decapitating Ukraine’s government last year were dramatically shattered, and his assessment of his own military capabilities proved wildly overoptimistic, it is still too early to judge the validity of his broader assumptions. Ukraine’s prospects of eventual victory will be greatly affected, one way or another, by who enters the White House next year. While liberal commentators — including Fukuyama himself — claim that Ukraine’s military successes are proof of democracy’s inherent superiority over autocracy, it is difficult, observing the Republican politicians currently bickering on social media, to share their triumphalism.

In the end, apart from the vast loss of life suffered by the Syrian people, and Libya’s lesser but still pitiful decade of destructive anarchy, the Arab world enters the post-Arab Spring era looking essentially the same as when its great convulsions began. The arc of history turned full circle: either the same autocrats are in charge, or cannier successors have taken their place; the region remains poorly governed by kleptocratic authoritarians and divided along much the same social and demographic fault lines as in 2011.

The only difference is that the very possibility of political change has been discredited: recent outbreaks of popular dissent, as in Lebanon and Iraq, are easily quelled without any international fuss. America’s local client states, from Turkey to Saudi Arabia, are now openly indifferent to satisfying the changeable whims of their unreliable patron, and confident that they can pursue their own paths and forge new alliances without any repercussions. As Bashar al-Assad’s triumphant return to the regional fold shows, the Arab Spring may have failed to change the Arab world, but it firmly marked the limits of the West’s ability, and desire, to reshape the world in its image.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

arisroussinos

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

34 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Louise Henson
Louise Henson
11 months ago

Western liberal democracy was preceded by centuries of cultural and social change. It’s not something that can be successfully imposed on societies that are still closer to the Middle Ages than the present day. It’s less than 100 years since Britain has had a universal franchise, and far less than that in some European countries. You can’t run when you haven’t even learned to walk.

Louise Henson
Louise Henson
11 months ago

Western liberal democracy was preceded by centuries of cultural and social change. It’s not something that can be successfully imposed on societies that are still closer to the Middle Ages than the present day. It’s less than 100 years since Britain has had a universal franchise, and far less than that in some European countries. You can’t run when you haven’t even learned to walk.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
11 months ago

“The winners were seen as backwards provincials, dangerous social conservatives who wanted to return the country to a mythical, idealised past. Justifying their stance against a democratic result they detested, they created elaborate conspiracy theories involving malicious foreign actors, which invalidated the election results and justified any action necessary to revoke its results.” 
Remind you of anyone, say the Guardian, BBC, Independent, the judiciary, the civil service….

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
11 months ago

“The winners were seen as backwards provincials, dangerous social conservatives who wanted to return the country to a mythical, idealised past. Justifying their stance against a democratic result they detested, they created elaborate conspiracy theories involving malicious foreign actors, which invalidated the election results and justified any action necessary to revoke its results.” 
Remind you of anyone, say the Guardian, BBC, Independent, the judiciary, the civil service….

Steve White
Steve White
11 months ago

Brave title, pro-neocon narrative content. After offering up great praise of Aris on his previous big essay, I’m going to say this. You can never tell which Aris is going to show up. The brave, truth at any cost, say what is true, and let the chips fall where they may
or, this one. 

Nick Nahlous
Nick Nahlous
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

Yep. Lots of Syria was looted & devastated. This was not done by 1500 Syrian rebels armed by the West. This was done by many thousands of foreign mercenaries & Jihadists entering Syria via Jordan & Turkey. Various non-Syrian Orthodox monks & nuns attested to this, how, in 2011, gunmen with foreign dialects of Arabic had entered into the country. The Turks themselves looted the industrial capital equipment of Aleppo. Also, while Sunni may have disproportionately comprised of the refugees (I don’t know), the West Military Academy published an internet article (still visible, titled Syria’s Sunnis and the Regime’s Resilience) stating Assad would not fall because 65% of his army was Sunni. In short, it appears to be a propaganda non-sense there was a religious civil war in Syria. It appears, based on the reality, it was a covert international war against Syria, which is why since the Syrian-Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah defeat of ISIS & Al Qaeda, NATO Turkey continues to protect these fighters in Idlib and why Israel regularly bombs Syria via Lebanese airspace. The bottom line is any reasonable person can travel to Syria now as a tourist and participate in the normal Syrian lifestyle. There is no war in mainstream Syria anymore because ISIS & Al Qaeda were expelled & removed by Russia, Syria and their allies.
Btw, does the article mention the USA itself has invaded NE Syria, now occupying the Syrian oil and wheat fields? The USA now is conducting another type of war, depriving Syria of its domestic oil & wheat production, as well as trying to choke Syria with economic sanctions.

Last edited 11 months ago by Nick Nahlous
Jim McDonnell
Jim McDonnell
11 months ago
Reply to  Nick Nahlous

Iran played an important role in the defeat of ISIS in Iraq, but ISIS in Syria was defeated by the multi-ethnic but predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces with US support. Its remnants there are held in check by the SDF. The SDF also guards camps full of ISIS prisoners whose home countries don’t want them back.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Nick Nahlous

Precisely, and thus a jewel of classical civilisation, the desert city of Palmyra, has been destroyed by a bunch ignorant Philistines.

However at least good old Mr Assad seems to have triumphed at the end of the day, as he richly deserved to.

Campbell P
Campbell P
10 months ago
Reply to  Nick Nahlous

Spot on! I was in Syria in the months before the ‘insurrection’. I went everywhere and Sunni, Shia’, Alawi, and Christian ALL said life under the Assads was infinitely preferable to the only two possible alternatives; either no real freedom under an extremist theocracy or continuous political instability. The women told me it was they who stood to lose most.
‘Please stay out of our country. We have seen the effects of your so-called democratic and humanitarian intervention in Iraq and we do not want them here.’
‘Under the Assads I am free to dress as I choose, not as the religious police choose.’
Even while I was there Saudi and US-backed, mainly foreign, ‘freedom fighters’ were already at work.
When I returned and wrote to William Hague saying that the British TV was offering a false picture of how the vast majority of Syrians felt, all I eventually got in reply was, ‘We are assisting our US allies in bringing democracy to Syria.’
And so, yet again, and then again in Afghanistan, Western commercial and political interests trump local sentiment and not only destroy Syria but create, along with other manifestations of the ‘Arab Spring’, a migrant crisis for Europe.
There was always going to be only two possible victors in Syria – those prepared to last the course – Assad or the Extremists. At no point in the saga did Western political leaders accept the Foreign Office, Regional, and Security Service advice from their respective authorities on the region. The goal was to destabilise another country bordering Israel at any cost: what they did not count on was pigeons which came home to roost.

Jim McDonnell
Jim McDonnell
11 months ago
Reply to  Nick Nahlous

Iran played an important role in the defeat of ISIS in Iraq, but ISIS in Syria was defeated by the multi-ethnic but predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces with US support. Its remnants there are held in check by the SDF. The SDF also guards camps full of ISIS prisoners whose home countries don’t want them back.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Nick Nahlous

Precisely, and thus a jewel of classical civilisation, the desert city of Palmyra, has been destroyed by a bunch ignorant Philistines.

However at least good old Mr Assad seems to have triumphed at the end of the day, as he richly deserved to.

Campbell P
Campbell P
10 months ago
Reply to  Nick Nahlous

Spot on! I was in Syria in the months before the ‘insurrection’. I went everywhere and Sunni, Shia’, Alawi, and Christian ALL said life under the Assads was infinitely preferable to the only two possible alternatives; either no real freedom under an extremist theocracy or continuous political instability. The women told me it was they who stood to lose most.
‘Please stay out of our country. We have seen the effects of your so-called democratic and humanitarian intervention in Iraq and we do not want them here.’
‘Under the Assads I am free to dress as I choose, not as the religious police choose.’
Even while I was there Saudi and US-backed, mainly foreign, ‘freedom fighters’ were already at work.
When I returned and wrote to William Hague saying that the British TV was offering a false picture of how the vast majority of Syrians felt, all I eventually got in reply was, ‘We are assisting our US allies in bringing democracy to Syria.’
And so, yet again, and then again in Afghanistan, Western commercial and political interests trump local sentiment and not only destroy Syria but create, along with other manifestations of the ‘Arab Spring’, a migrant crisis for Europe.
There was always going to be only two possible victors in Syria – those prepared to last the course – Assad or the Extremists. At no point in the saga did Western political leaders accept the Foreign Office, Regional, and Security Service advice from their respective authorities on the region. The goal was to destabilise another country bordering Israel at any cost: what they did not count on was pigeons which came home to roost.

Nick Nahlous
Nick Nahlous
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

Yep. Lots of Syria was looted & devastated. This was not done by 1500 Syrian rebels armed by the West. This was done by many thousands of foreign mercenaries & Jihadists entering Syria via Jordan & Turkey. Various non-Syrian Orthodox monks & nuns attested to this, how, in 2011, gunmen with foreign dialects of Arabic had entered into the country. The Turks themselves looted the industrial capital equipment of Aleppo. Also, while Sunni may have disproportionately comprised of the refugees (I don’t know), the West Military Academy published an internet article (still visible, titled Syria’s Sunnis and the Regime’s Resilience) stating Assad would not fall because 65% of his army was Sunni. In short, it appears to be a propaganda non-sense there was a religious civil war in Syria. It appears, based on the reality, it was a covert international war against Syria, which is why since the Syrian-Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah defeat of ISIS & Al Qaeda, NATO Turkey continues to protect these fighters in Idlib and why Israel regularly bombs Syria via Lebanese airspace. The bottom line is any reasonable person can travel to Syria now as a tourist and participate in the normal Syrian lifestyle. There is no war in mainstream Syria anymore because ISIS & Al Qaeda were expelled & removed by Russia, Syria and their allies.
Btw, does the article mention the USA itself has invaded NE Syria, now occupying the Syrian oil and wheat fields? The USA now is conducting another type of war, depriving Syria of its domestic oil & wheat production, as well as trying to choke Syria with economic sanctions.

Last edited 11 months ago by Nick Nahlous
Steve White
Steve White
11 months ago

Brave title, pro-neocon narrative content. After offering up great praise of Aris on his previous big essay, I’m going to say this. You can never tell which Aris is going to show up. The brave, truth at any cost, say what is true, and let the chips fall where they may
or, this one. 

Max Price
Max Price
11 months ago

I had trouble taking the article seriously after “The Arab world is not so different to home.” Nobody really wants the backward results from democratic Arab societies. Stable monarchies are probably the best to be hoped for at present. The problem is religious and cultural not political. The Arab world needs its own enlightenment and it will only come internally.

Max Price
Max Price
11 months ago

I had trouble taking the article seriously after “The Arab world is not so different to home.” Nobody really wants the backward results from democratic Arab societies. Stable monarchies are probably the best to be hoped for at present. The problem is religious and cultural not political. The Arab world needs its own enlightenment and it will only come internally.

Max Price
Max Price
11 months ago

The problems in the Arab world are religious and cultural not political.

D Walsh
D Walsh
11 months ago
Reply to  Max Price

You say that as if politics is not downstream of religion and culture, you can’t ignore average IQ either

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
11 months ago
Reply to  Max Price

But their religion is their politics. The two are one and the same.

james goater
james goater
11 months ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

Exactly. Islam’s holy texts, the Quran and the Hadiths, constitute a political doctrine as well as a religious one. And “believers” are taught to see the doctrine as perfect, irrefutable, and therefore in no need of revision (more’s the pity).

james goater
james goater
11 months ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

Exactly. Islam’s holy texts, the Quran and the Hadiths, constitute a political doctrine as well as a religious one. And “believers” are taught to see the doctrine as perfect, irrefutable, and therefore in no need of revision (more’s the pity).

D Walsh
D Walsh
11 months ago
Reply to  Max Price

You say that as if politics is not downstream of religion and culture, you can’t ignore average IQ either

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
11 months ago
Reply to  Max Price

But their religion is their politics. The two are one and the same.

Max Price
Max Price
11 months ago

The problems in the Arab world are religious and cultural not political.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

US Foreign Policy is predicated on the defence of Israel, rather like 12th and 13th century Europe’s was on the ‘Crusader States’.

Will history repeat itself?

Last edited 11 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Nick Nahlous
Nick Nahlous
11 months ago

There was no USA weakness. While unlike in Libya, the covert operation/war in Syria did not succeed in the desired regime change, both the Libyan & Syrian Interventions were extremely successful, utterly devastating & disempowering these two countries. That is all that really matters to the US Foreign Policy. Since the expulsion of groups such as ISIS & Al Qaeda to NATO-Turkey held Idlib, Israel bombs Syria regularly, with complete impunity. Syria is basically defenseless. I would guess Syria returned to the Arab League at the behest of Russia; given Russian diplomacy with Arab countries since the start of the Ukraine Military Operation. It was Arab countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, even Hamas, and particularly Qatar, who were said to have imported &/or funded the Jihadi fighters into Syria. While Bashar pulled no punches in his recent Arab League speech, I guess he personally was loathed to return to the Arab League.

Last edited 11 months ago by Nick Nahlous
Nick Nahlous
Nick Nahlous
11 months ago

There was no USA weakness. While unlike in Libya, the covert operation/war in Syria did not succeed in the desired regime change, both the Libyan & Syrian Interventions were extremely successful, utterly devastating & disempowering these two countries. That is all that really matters to the US Foreign Policy. Since the expulsion of groups such as ISIS & Al Qaeda to NATO-Turkey held Idlib, Israel bombs Syria regularly, with complete impunity. Syria is basically defenseless. I would guess Syria returned to the Arab League at the behest of Russia; given Russian diplomacy with Arab countries since the start of the Ukraine Military Operation. It was Arab countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, even Hamas, and particularly Qatar, who were said to have imported &/or funded the Jihadi fighters into Syria. While Bashar pulled no punches in his recent Arab League speech, I guess he personally was loathed to return to the Arab League.

Last edited 11 months ago by Nick Nahlous
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

US Foreign Policy is predicated on the defence of Israel, rather like 12th and 13th century Europe’s was on the ‘Crusader States’.

Will history repeat itself?

Last edited 11 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Andrew F
Andrew F
11 months ago

How strange that author does not mention Obamas “red lines” in Syria?
It was reluctance of Obama to enforce them that persuaded Putin that he can succeed in Syria and elsewhere.
If I recall Israel was not that keen on regime change in Syria.
Better Assad then Iran supported bunch of religious fanatics running Syria.
I agree though that initial support of the West for regime changes in Middle East was terrible idea with terrible long term consequences.
Thinking it was good idea after debacle in Iraq was idiotic.
But since it was done under leadership of Barrack “Saint of woke” Obama, it never gets mentioned.

Andrew F
Andrew F
11 months ago

How strange that author does not mention Obamas “red lines” in Syria?
It was reluctance of Obama to enforce them that persuaded Putin that he can succeed in Syria and elsewhere.
If I recall Israel was not that keen on regime change in Syria.
Better Assad then Iran supported bunch of religious fanatics running Syria.
I agree though that initial support of the West for regime changes in Middle East was terrible idea with terrible long term consequences.
Thinking it was good idea after debacle in Iraq was idiotic.
But since it was done under leadership of Barrack “Saint of woke” Obama, it never gets mentioned.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
11 months ago

Two issues which are being ignored:the creation of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s and Sunni Islamic Parties in India in the 1940s which rejected western culture, especially emancipation of women and khomeini coming to power in Iran in 1979. Syria and Iraq were run by The Baathist Party which were largely secular arab nationalists. When Grand Ayatollah Khomeini came to power he threatened all Sunni nations whether, republics or monarchies and also inspired Muslim Brotherhood.
In Syria, the dominant religious group was the Alawites, an offshoot of the Shia version of Islam. The Alawites dominated the Baath Party of Syria and ran a fairly secular nation . The Muslim Brotherhood gained support after defeat of Egypt and Syria in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and murdered Sadat in 1981. The MB challenged the Baathist Party in Syria resulting in 20,000 of them being murdered by Al Assad senior in the 1980s.
The support of Saudi Arabia for the Afghans in the war with the USSR resulted in many arabs fighting in this conflict and adopting Wahabi version of Islam. It is largely Afghan veterans who returned to Algeria who started the Civil War of the 1990s in this country.
The rise of the Muslim Botherhood/ Wahabi/ Al Quaeda axis threatened Shias, minorities and arabs both Sunni or Christian. Al Quaeda groups formed in Iraq helped already existing Muslim Brotherhood ( Sunni ) fight the largely secular Baathist Party who ran Syria which was dominated by Alawites. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Syria obtained from Shia Iran against a Saudi supported MB/ISIS ( Al Quaeda ) alliance. Saudi support for ISIS may have been an attempt to rid it’s country of Al Quaeda suporters.
The Kurds are Iranians racially but Sunni by religion are are far more secular in outlook than Shia Iranians and Wahabi/MB/ISIS and women had a large measure of freedom compared to other nearby countries.
The slaughter of Christians by ISIS in Iraq persuaded them to support Al Assad in Syria. In Syria, if people did not challenge the Baathist Party they could lead a Christian or secular life which was not possible under MB/ISIS rule.
The USA and Britain had no desire to understand the complexities of Syria which historically we had very few contacts. The USA and Britain also failed to comprehend the conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam and between secular middle and upper class Sunni Arabs and the MB/Wahabi/Al Quaeda/ISIS axis which are based on rejection of Western emancipation of women combined with criticism corruption and incompetence of ruling westernised elites. Where Sunni arab countries are ruled by competent largely non corrupt people who understand the moods of the nation: the Wahabi- Salaafi/ MB/ISIS / Al Quaeda axis has minimal power, which is largely in monarchies.

Julian Newman
Julian Newman
11 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

In my view a smart policy for western states would have been to recognise that the values of the Baath party (basically to maintain a secular state) were intrinsically far closer to ours than those of the Arab Spring, and could facilitate the evolution of Syria into a western-oriented society. It should have been possible to support Assad’s secularism and work to detach him from Iran, whereas the policy actually pursued gave Russia a foothold on the Mediterranean.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
11 months ago
Reply to  Julian Newman

Russia had a base on the Mediterranean for years. To have any traction with the Baath Party , the West would have had to provide effective military support in defeating Salaafi/MB/ISIS/Al Quaeda I cannot see that could have occurred.I think there is a danger to believe there is an answer to all problems. In the case of Syria, I do not see the West having the expertise, patience or willingness to provide effective military aid in order to achieve a solution.

Campbell P
Campbell P
10 months ago
Reply to  Julian Newman

You are absolutely bang on with this comment. Unfortunately the Zionist hawks in the US Administration would have none of it.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
11 months ago
Reply to  Julian Newman

Russia had a base on the Mediterranean for years. To have any traction with the Baath Party , the West would have had to provide effective military support in defeating Salaafi/MB/ISIS/Al Quaeda I cannot see that could have occurred.I think there is a danger to believe there is an answer to all problems. In the case of Syria, I do not see the West having the expertise, patience or willingness to provide effective military aid in order to achieve a solution.

Campbell P
Campbell P
10 months ago
Reply to  Julian Newman

You are absolutely bang on with this comment. Unfortunately the Zionist hawks in the US Administration would have none of it.

Campbell P
Campbell P
10 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Very perceptive comment. As I have said elsewhere, the US Administration and its catspaw Blair were never interested in the facts on the ground or local sentiment – despite warnings from their regional experts; and they never planned for the pigeons which came home to roost.

Julian Newman
Julian Newman
11 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

In my view a smart policy for western states would have been to recognise that the values of the Baath party (basically to maintain a secular state) were intrinsically far closer to ours than those of the Arab Spring, and could facilitate the evolution of Syria into a western-oriented society. It should have been possible to support Assad’s secularism and work to detach him from Iran, whereas the policy actually pursued gave Russia a foothold on the Mediterranean.

Campbell P
Campbell P
10 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Very perceptive comment. As I have said elsewhere, the US Administration and its catspaw Blair were never interested in the facts on the ground or local sentiment – despite warnings from their regional experts; and they never planned for the pigeons which came home to roost.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
11 months ago

Two issues which are being ignored:the creation of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s and Sunni Islamic Parties in India in the 1940s which rejected western culture, especially emancipation of women and khomeini coming to power in Iran in 1979. Syria and Iraq were run by The Baathist Party which were largely secular arab nationalists. When Grand Ayatollah Khomeini came to power he threatened all Sunni nations whether, republics or monarchies and also inspired Muslim Brotherhood.
In Syria, the dominant religious group was the Alawites, an offshoot of the Shia version of Islam. The Alawites dominated the Baath Party of Syria and ran a fairly secular nation . The Muslim Brotherhood gained support after defeat of Egypt and Syria in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and murdered Sadat in 1981. The MB challenged the Baathist Party in Syria resulting in 20,000 of them being murdered by Al Assad senior in the 1980s.
The support of Saudi Arabia for the Afghans in the war with the USSR resulted in many arabs fighting in this conflict and adopting Wahabi version of Islam. It is largely Afghan veterans who returned to Algeria who started the Civil War of the 1990s in this country.
The rise of the Muslim Botherhood/ Wahabi/ Al Quaeda axis threatened Shias, minorities and arabs both Sunni or Christian. Al Quaeda groups formed in Iraq helped already existing Muslim Brotherhood ( Sunni ) fight the largely secular Baathist Party who ran Syria which was dominated by Alawites. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Syria obtained from Shia Iran against a Saudi supported MB/ISIS ( Al Quaeda ) alliance. Saudi support for ISIS may have been an attempt to rid it’s country of Al Quaeda suporters.
The Kurds are Iranians racially but Sunni by religion are are far more secular in outlook than Shia Iranians and Wahabi/MB/ISIS and women had a large measure of freedom compared to other nearby countries.
The slaughter of Christians by ISIS in Iraq persuaded them to support Al Assad in Syria. In Syria, if people did not challenge the Baathist Party they could lead a Christian or secular life which was not possible under MB/ISIS rule.
The USA and Britain had no desire to understand the complexities of Syria which historically we had very few contacts. The USA and Britain also failed to comprehend the conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam and between secular middle and upper class Sunni Arabs and the MB/Wahabi/Al Quaeda/ISIS axis which are based on rejection of Western emancipation of women combined with criticism corruption and incompetence of ruling westernised elites. Where Sunni arab countries are ruled by competent largely non corrupt people who understand the moods of the nation: the Wahabi- Salaafi/ MB/ISIS / Al Quaeda axis has minimal power, which is largely in monarchies.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
11 months ago

Good, long article. Two points I would make. Firstly, Assad has not only secured his regime but more deeply entrenched itself as the guarantor of an independent, plurlistic state.
On the religious aspect one overlooked fact that most commentators didn’t consider at the time and still don’t is the fear of the Sunni majority that Syria was being turned into an Alawite/Shia state. Figures on demographics are notoriously hard to decipher but many sunnis before the war were unhappy about unofficial conversions to shiism (mainstream or alawite) which you could see in Damascus. The uprising which started in the south (sunni and arab funnily enough) was fuelled along sectarian lines – sunnis vs the rest.
Second, what we let happen in Egypt was a disgrace and doomed the possible spring. The Morsi government was failing already, incompetent and unpopular. By promoting a coup we didn’t give people (in the Middle East and further afield) a chance to see islamism fail on its own terms. The Muslim Bortherhood in Egypt were the poster child for restrained, accomodating islamism. By strangling them in their cradle it only made the violent, uncompromising strain more appealing and the only alternative if you were of that bent. It will be viewed in 100yrs as worse than the decision to go into Afghanistan (though maybe not Iraq).

Last edited 11 months ago by Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
11 months ago

Good, long article. Two points I would make. Firstly, Assad has not only secured his regime but more deeply entrenched itself as the guarantor of an independent, plurlistic state.
On the religious aspect one overlooked fact that most commentators didn’t consider at the time and still don’t is the fear of the Sunni majority that Syria was being turned into an Alawite/Shia state. Figures on demographics are notoriously hard to decipher but many sunnis before the war were unhappy about unofficial conversions to shiism (mainstream or alawite) which you could see in Damascus. The uprising which started in the south (sunni and arab funnily enough) was fuelled along sectarian lines – sunnis vs the rest.
Second, what we let happen in Egypt was a disgrace and doomed the possible spring. The Morsi government was failing already, incompetent and unpopular. By promoting a coup we didn’t give people (in the Middle East and further afield) a chance to see islamism fail on its own terms. The Muslim Bortherhood in Egypt were the poster child for restrained, accomodating islamism. By strangling them in their cradle it only made the violent, uncompromising strain more appealing and the only alternative if you were of that bent. It will be viewed in 100yrs as worse than the decision to go into Afghanistan (though maybe not Iraq).

Last edited 11 months ago by Milton Gibbon
John Tumilty
John Tumilty
11 months ago

I am not convinced its US weakness. US is now energy independent so does not need to control that part of the world in the same way. However US is still the dominant military power and will protect its key interests.
I think Putin mistook the US’s disinterest and is now paying the price. The US will step in and win when its key allies and/or interests are threatened. The Eastern border of Europe is still a key interest.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
11 months ago
Reply to  John Tumilty

I think “dominant” and “win” need definition. The USA’s overseas expeditions have a poor track record, neither dominating or winning.

Trillions spent invading and occupying Afghanistan has left that country in the strategic orbit of China, and has left Western influence in Pakistan more marginalised than ever.

The failures in Iraq, Syria and Libya have emboldened Iran and seen Saudi Arabia officially begin decoupling from the USA.

For all the countless operations in Central and South America, the USA has failed to cultivate a strong ally that can contribute to US hegemon abroad as part of NATO.

The USA’s self interested capture of European energy markets has only served to quicken the industrial and economic demise of NATO countries, America’s closest strategic military alliance.

And the most key interest of all, defending the dollar’s global reserve status, has been undermined by the USA’s poor preparation and decision making in Ukraine. The grab of Russian assets and botched attempt at cutting trading has only expedited the global demand for dollar alternatives, most notably Saudi Arabia.

The stock answer from those who defend this and previous US administrations is the Middle East is no longer so strategic thanks to its energy independence, South America isn’t globally significant, Europe is old and finished, and Africa is too poor to matter. That’s 4/5th of the world the USA has given up protecting its interests.

Last edited 11 months ago by Nell Clover
John Tumilty
John Tumilty
11 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Wishing the US to be weak and incompetent is not the same as them actually being so.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
11 months ago
Reply to  John Tumilty

Can you point to examples of competence, apart from blowing up pipelines

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
11 months ago

Having 300 million Americans peacefully spending over 100% of their incomes on goods and services, re-electing the same crooked politicians over and over, while slowly growing the size and scope of the government bureaucracy is an example of competence.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

‘They’ managed to persuade ‘us’ to send ‘Storm Shadow’ cruise missiles to the Ukraine, and thus put our good selves at the top of Mr Putin’s hit list. Bravo!

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
11 months ago

Having 300 million Americans peacefully spending over 100% of their incomes on goods and services, re-electing the same crooked politicians over and over, while slowly growing the size and scope of the government bureaucracy is an example of competence.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

‘They’ managed to persuade ‘us’ to send ‘Storm Shadow’ cruise missiles to the Ukraine, and thus put our good selves at the top of Mr Putin’s hit list. Bravo!

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
11 months ago
Reply to  John Tumilty

Actually, I believe it is! ..or at least that one begets the other.. if enough countries get sufficiently pissed off with the US, and grow a pair they may form an alternative reserve currency.. we’re well past the trickle phase, into the flow, and may well see a flood of anti US from the BRICS+ with support from awakened, post colonial African and Asian States; and even South America (Brazil well advanced already within its BRICS home). How long before we see a BRICS+ army as a rival to NATO? If we’re smart we’ll move away from a losing USA and embrace an emerging BRICS+.
For now it seems we’re far too stupid with idiots like Sunak and Von derLayen backing a losing horse. Maybe Macron is smarter? Let’s hope so.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
11 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

You had better learn another language quickly.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Tut, tut, Mahoney, been on the vino again?

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
11 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

You had better learn another language quickly.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Tut, tut, Mahoney, been on the vino again?

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
11 months ago
Reply to  John Tumilty

I don’t wish the USA to be weak. Questioning some obviously awful policy choices made by the USA isnt the same as supporting the enemies of the USA.

You don’t answer the points made:
– How can American interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria be described as competent defences of American interests when they demonstrably damaged American interests?
– How is scaring unaligned countries and allied countries such as Saudi from using the dollar a defence of American interests when it undermines the very thing that makes the dollar the world’s reserve currency?

Last edited 11 months ago by Nell Clover
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
11 months ago
Reply to  John Tumilty

Can you point to examples of competence, apart from blowing up pipelines

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
11 months ago
Reply to  John Tumilty

Actually, I believe it is! ..or at least that one begets the other.. if enough countries get sufficiently pissed off with the US, and grow a pair they may form an alternative reserve currency.. we’re well past the trickle phase, into the flow, and may well see a flood of anti US from the BRICS+ with support from awakened, post colonial African and Asian States; and even South America (Brazil well advanced already within its BRICS home). How long before we see a BRICS+ army as a rival to NATO? If we’re smart we’ll move away from a losing USA and embrace an emerging BRICS+.
For now it seems we’re far too stupid with idiots like Sunak and Von derLayen backing a losing horse. Maybe Macron is smarter? Let’s hope so.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
11 months ago
Reply to  John Tumilty

I don’t wish the USA to be weak. Questioning some obviously awful policy choices made by the USA isnt the same as supporting the enemies of the USA.

You don’t answer the points made:
– How can American interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria be described as competent defences of American interests when they demonstrably damaged American interests?
– How is scaring unaligned countries and allied countries such as Saudi from using the dollar a defence of American interests when it undermines the very thing that makes the dollar the world’s reserve currency?

Last edited 11 months ago by Nell Clover
Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
11 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

The trillions ‘spent’ by the US were simply printed with gay abandon so the money doesn’t really matter.. plenty more where that came from! Just look at the debt ceiling circus.. what is it now, $32,000,000,000,000 and it seems it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that the obscenely rich get richer and all other anti US regimes get smashed..
But maybe, just maybe with unrest at home, a dying democracy, hungry and frustrated Americans and crazy politicians the looming de-dollarisation will herald in an end of the US Empire? Will that possibility will come to pass. I recommend each way bets..

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
11 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Haha! Perhaps the yanks should have let you all become Germans a few decades ago? How quickly some forget. I’m sure the post US world will be nirvana for most Europeans.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
11 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Haha! Perhaps the yanks should have let you all become Germans a few decades ago? How quickly some forget. I’m sure the post US world will be nirvana for most Europeans.

John Tumilty
John Tumilty
11 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Wishing the US to be weak and incompetent is not the same as them actually being so.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
11 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

The trillions ‘spent’ by the US were simply printed with gay abandon so the money doesn’t really matter.. plenty more where that came from! Just look at the debt ceiling circus.. what is it now, $32,000,000,000,000 and it seems it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that the obscenely rich get richer and all other anti US regimes get smashed..
But maybe, just maybe with unrest at home, a dying democracy, hungry and frustrated Americans and crazy politicians the looming de-dollarisation will herald in an end of the US Empire? Will that possibility will come to pass. I recommend each way bets..

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
11 months ago
Reply to  John Tumilty

It’s not borders that interest the US, it’s what’s inside those borders, ie oil and other resources!

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
11 months ago
Reply to  John Tumilty

I think “dominant” and “win” need definition. The USA’s overseas expeditions have a poor track record, neither dominating or winning.

Trillions spent invading and occupying Afghanistan has left that country in the strategic orbit of China, and has left Western influence in Pakistan more marginalised than ever.

The failures in Iraq, Syria and Libya have emboldened Iran and seen Saudi Arabia officially begin decoupling from the USA.

For all the countless operations in Central and South America, the USA has failed to cultivate a strong ally that can contribute to US hegemon abroad as part of NATO.

The USA’s self interested capture of European energy markets has only served to quicken the industrial and economic demise of NATO countries, America’s closest strategic military alliance.

And the most key interest of all, defending the dollar’s global reserve status, has been undermined by the USA’s poor preparation and decision making in Ukraine. The grab of Russian assets and botched attempt at cutting trading has only expedited the global demand for dollar alternatives, most notably Saudi Arabia.

The stock answer from those who defend this and previous US administrations is the Middle East is no longer so strategic thanks to its energy independence, South America isn’t globally significant, Europe is old and finished, and Africa is too poor to matter. That’s 4/5th of the world the USA has given up protecting its interests.

Last edited 11 months ago by Nell Clover
Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
11 months ago
Reply to  John Tumilty

It’s not borders that interest the US, it’s what’s inside those borders, ie oil and other resources!

John Tumilty
John Tumilty
11 months ago

I am not convinced its US weakness. US is now energy independent so does not need to control that part of the world in the same way. However US is still the dominant military power and will protect its key interests.
I think Putin mistook the US’s disinterest and is now paying the price. The US will step in and win when its key allies and/or interests are threatened. The Eastern border of Europe is still a key interest.