Syria And The West

Up till now, it has been quite easy for conservatives to point to the obvious mistakes, not to say outright blunders, made by American and EU foreign policy in the Islamic world and specifically in the Middle East. Instead of safeguarding our interests and making sure Islamic fundamentalism, or simply the growing self-confidence of Islamic culture, would not gain power or be significantly promoted in any country, the Western policy makers have not only silently stood aside while Islamist groups gained the ascendancy in the Arab world, but even supported these groups directly or indirectly. Libya and Tunisia our examples of Islamic extremism coming to power through western default, as a consequence of naive western opinions; Egypt is the shameful example of a totalitarian revolution being bankrolled by the west, like the Bolsheviks in the past. 

The attitude of our governments toward Islamic totalitarianism is to a large extent similar to their past attitude towards the threats of fascism and communism, and is typical of the republican form of society of modern democracies: although we all know very well the danger is acute and not to be neglected, none of our leaders has the courage or the vision directly to address the peril as it should be. First of all, group psychology is working here: no government and no section of society, however much they feel disaster lurking around the corner, can agree as to which policy is best followed to avert the threat; thus, constructive action is only undertaken when war is practically inescapable and the right solution to the problems becomes clear to all group and opinions. Second, of course, there is the moral laxity and yearning for peace typical for democracies, which de Tocqueville as well as De Maistre already warned us about in the nineteenth century. War, as in the case of the second world war, often comes as a punishment for unwillingness to have the courage to recognize and study a great threat, an unwillingness that is due to modern man’s belief in the universality of democratic values and his unbelief in the possibility of war – a terribly naive mentality, since war has been epidemic in the course of human history. The second world war could have been averted had the allies intervened just one or two years earlier, or ideally in 1936; but the obsession with preserving peace led to toleration of totalitarianism as well as of German rearmament. 

The whole fragmented western approach towards the Islamic danger has to be seen in the light of these reflections. We are fighting Islamic fundamentalism directly, like in Mali, or overthrow regimes which are funding and encouraging terrorism, as in Iraq and perhaps in the future Iran; at the same time however, foreign policy circles don’t seem to have noticed the elephant in the corner, namely Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states, who are actually responsible for the resurgence of Islamic militancy ever since the house of Saud established its rule over the Arabian peninsula, and killed infinitely more people and caused so much more injustice than the comparatively insignificant regime of Saddam Hussein. Here we see the group psychology problem combined with that of moral laxity: the danger emanating from the petrodollars in the Gulf was obvious to every thinking person, nonetheless the cacophony of different voices within the US government led to targeting the wrong villain and in the process wasting billions of dollars which could have been turned to more useful purposes in a campaign against the Gulf states. Then moral laxity set in because after the far from encouraging war in Iraq no western government dares to consider breaking the peace although it becomes clearer every day that somewhere in the near future this will be a necessity. The recent news that the EU is actively sponsoring the regime of Mohamed Morsi can also be interpreted in that sense: we have a vague feeling that Morsi’s regime  is dangerous and disregards every elemental notion of human rights, but who is to decide about that? Wasn’t he democratically elected- so can we be sure about our feeling concerning the new pharaoh? And who wants to accept responsibility for making the big decision? Thus, the unhappy conclusion to all these confusing voices is: keep the money flowing. 

So far, so good. Even if it would be hard to convince our policy makers of finally accepting reality and following the right policy regarding the Islamic world, at least rational people, who believe in the dignity of man, can concur that there is a clear answer to most questions on foreign policy in the Islamic world. As Daniel Pipes recently said in an interview, we should simply act on one basic premise: always oppose the Islamists. Not actively, since indeed it would be hard to justify any intervention in regional politics because the values to which the local electorates adhere are not in line with western values, but simply by not supporting Islamist groups implicitly or directly as we have done throughout the whole Arab Spring. Evil can only win through the sanction of the victim; the only thing needed to oppose evil is self-confidence and standing on ones rights. Once again, the examples of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany come to mind: these regimes flowered not because of their own inherent strength, but because of the eagerness with which democratic countries abandoned their own rights and interests to them. 

Syria, however, is a more complicated issue, and in my view it is the test of the conservative foreign policy stance. Even mainstream opinion is still largely divided on the Syrian question, but in the past months, as the civil war has become ever more intense and the cruelties of the Assad regime are reportedly becoming worse by the day, it has been gradually won over to the view that the rebels should be supported against the tyranny of Assad, and that no solution is worth considering if the dictator does not leave. The leader of the liberal mission to Syria of the EU, Koert Debeuf, is already urging western governments to supply the rebels with arms, and most intellectuals seem to share his concerns. 

Naturally I understand the motives for supporting or at least keeping an eye on the rebels by supplying them. First, up till now the gulf states have been supplying the rebels with arms, which of course has led to the very problematic effervescence of Islamic extremism among the rebels; not only are the fundamentalists growing in numbers and influence, but also they seem to be the braver resistance fighters, since they more readily give their own lives in strikes against the regime. It is not to be denied that the growth of the Salafist current would present a great danger to democracy in Syria after the fall of Assad, so maybe we should indeed be considering to arm the rebels and thus keep them away from dangerous ideology. Secondly, there is of course the basic moral argument that we should never support a dictatorship, and a very brutal one at that. We should help the Syrian people in the transition to democracy, and value democracy just as much as we value it in our own countries and everyday life. Besides, there is the further complicating circumstance that the Syrian regime is supported by the theocracy of Iran and that part of the military equipment of the Syrian army could fall into the hands of Hezbollah when the situation in the country would become too chaotic, which in turn presents a grave threat to the safety of Israel.

But let us first address the basic issues. It is not as evident as it may seem at first sight, that the rebels would ideologically be driven on another course if we started supplying them with arms. On the contrary, for two reasons we should be more careful in analyzing the situation in this Islamic country and the geopolitics of Islam that are at work here. As Gary Gambill argued in an article on the Middle East Forum, western nations supplying arms to the rebels would not stop the gulf states doing the same, and more problematically, western involvement could bring these Arab countries to abandoning all restraint on extremist propaganda, since they would count on western influence to counter fundamentalism, and also implicitly encourage Islamism as a counterweight against the latest western corruption of the Arab world. 

But that is only the smallest part of the problem: the main reason why we should not intervene in Syria to bring democracy, lies in Islamic culture itself. And here once again we have paid absolutely no attention to the lesson of the Arab Spring. If you study the history of Islam, the first thing to catch your attention is that the mentality as well as the history of Islamic peoples is totally different from the western case. Unlike western civilization, Islamic civilization has not known any distinct historical periods, separated by philosophical watersheds, as in western civilization we have Middle Ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment and so on: Islamic history and consequently Islamic culture is not familiar with our notion of “backwardness”, “archaism’ or even “the past”. To the Islamic mind, the whole history of Islam is a continuum and essentially the same period in which Muslims are still living today. Islam, however, does know variation in its history, namely the periods in which it is healthy, in other words expanding through warfare and conquest of other cultures, or sick, meaning a standstill of conquest or influence of Islam in the world. The first ages of Islam were a healthy period, when the Muslim hordes conquered territory from France to India; the time of the crusades and the Mongol invasions was a time of sickness, just like the colonial period. But now the time is ripe to begin the re-conquest, the re-invigoration of Islam: the youth bulge in the Islamic world, the Arab petrodollars, and the fact that the West is a culture in decline, and has lost its soul, have all combined to create very propitious circumstances indeed for the revival of Islam. 

Thus, what we are today witnessing is indeed a clash of civilizations, and the Arab Spring was in fact nothing more than an a first outburst and a portent of the coming Islamist surge, identical to that of the first centuries of Islam and the Ottoman threat to Europe. Now we should keep this observation in mind very well, when we take a look at the Syrian situation once again. It may be true that the Syrian opposition is far from a Salafist movement, but the fact that Salafists are steadily gaining influence in the movement, is not just the coincidental result of Islamist funding, but part of a civilization’s movement. Islam is currently the only stable, reputable ideology or identity in the Islamic world; we all know the time of secular Islam is in fact behind us since the resurgence of fundamentalism and Islam in general in the seventies, when European ideologies became discredited –very much as they lost influence in the west itself- and Muslims realized that their religion was really the only thing they could all agree upon and be certain of. I am not saying that Syria will directly be converted to an Islamist regime if we demand that Assad should leave unconditionally; probably the fighting will go on in various areas of Syria after the “liberation” from Assad. But nevertheless, Syria would then become the next training ground for jihadist fighters and a next problem zone in the Middle East. It is totally illusory, by the way, to hope that Syria could ever be converted to democracy, just as the hope proved illusory in other Arab countries the last two years. Once again we are misguided by the habit of too eagerly extrapolating western experiences and points of view to other parts of the world. We have the tendency to interpret every uprising as an ideological revolution, in which the opposition has a clear program for reform in mind that is always more democratic than the regime they want to overthrow. But we forget that this is not the main pattern history has followed since known times, and moreover it wasn’t even the main pattern in the west before the French revolution. Blind opposition to oppressive regimes in the form of popular uprisings is in fact a continuous element in history: we find it in all cultures, we find it in Roman times, and also in the west up till the French revolution, when uprising for the first time in history had a real ideological component. The Fronde of Paris against royal power was an example of these often recurring popular uprisings: the people rose against any sovereign or ruler who misgoverned the country, but invariably the overthrown ruler was replaced not by a democratic and enlightened leader, but by a ruler who was often just as corrupt and authoritarian. Simply rebelling out of anger at mismanagement and the resulting poverty of the country, does not mean the rebels themselves automatically know what the right course to follow is. This we are seeing in Syria as in the other Arab countries today, still quite independently of the issue of Islam. 

The lesson from the past is: if Islam attacks the west, we should defend ourselves. In the first place we should do this by never giving in to Islamism and containing it were possible without violence; only when the danger becomes acute, we should use military means (as in Mali, for example, since the interests of Mediterranean Europe would be harmed by the rise of Islamism in Northern Africa). In the case of Syria this implies that we should not support the rebels, not only because we don’t exactly know who they are, what their goals are, and most importantly how much support they really have from the population, but because the choice in Syria as in the rest of the Islamic world is not between dictatorship and democracy, but between a stable (if also not very friendly) dictatorship that contains Islamism, and the reduction of Syria to another outpost of Islamic militancy, whether fundamentalism triumphs or no; failed states in the Islamic world always present this danger. Of course I haven’t forgotten that meanwhile the Gulf states are still financing the rebels and have a hand in the events in Syria. Therefore the wisest course is  not to look on as Syria slides into further chaos, but for once to support the Russian point of view as embodied in the counsels of foreign minister Sergej Lavrov. However misguided Russian policy sometimes is, in this instance the representative of a culture that has still recently experienced what history actually is what the forces of history are, is undoubtedly right in his analysis. The most beneficial policy, for the Syrian people as well as for the safety of non-Muslim countries, is negotiating with Assad and figuring out a solution with him remaining in power. If the rebels do not accept any compromise with Assad, and want him to leave at any cost to the civilian population, that tells us enough about the goals of the rebels, and in that case we should ignore them. That is about the best we can get: not democracy, not absolute friendliness towards the west, but at least the containment of Islamism, and stability.