Assad has friends in Tehran, a little bit in China, and in Moscow. The Syrian people have no friends.
ISTANBUL: With roughly 200,000 Syrians dead, three million Syrian refugees in Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, half of Syria’s remaining population of 20 million people homeless and cowering in the rubble-strewn streets of Syria’s cities, and Iraq teetering at the precipice of implosion, it should be permissible by now to wish that the world had listened to George Sabra.
“Delay, delay delay. This is what has caused the catastrophe for Syria, for Syrians, and now for the whole region and the world. For three years, we were shouting, day and night,” the stocky and surprisingly youthful 67-year-old president of the Syrian National Council told me here this week. “If you leave Assad to destroy the country, not just every day but every hour, this is what will happen.”
He’s the oldest of nine children from a proud Greek Orthodox family in Damascus. Sabra’s SNC is the largest bloc in the pro-democracy Syrian Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. From his earliest days as a left-wing activist, through his several years as a political prisoner and his time spent in the Syrian underground as a prominent anti-regime figure, Sabra has always been cursed by an uncanny ability to get things right.
Sabra’s highest hopes for Syrian democracy came in 2011, when the first stirrings of the Arab Spring arose among the graffiti-scribbling schoolboys of Daraa, setting off a non-violent uprising. The Baathist despot Bashar Al Assad responded with a campaign of aerial bombings and mass murder that he is still waging against his own people, but the world’s indifference has exacted the heaviest political toll on Syria’s democratic forces.
By his dithering and prevarication, the “war weary” U.S. President Barack Obama has given every advantage to the Islamist butchers who set out to usurp the revolution, and whose savagery eventually burst Syria’s borders. Now, Obama is cobbling together an air-power alliance that involves sending NATO forces, including Canadian Forces advisers and Special Operations troops, into the shambles his administration left behind in Iraq three years ago. The prospects for peace and democracy in Syria, meanwhile, remain shrouded on a distant horizon.
It’s not that Sabra was alone in his warnings. All along, the most senior U.S. officials were ringing alarm bells. The warnings came from Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, CIA chief David Petraeus, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, senior White House Syria adviser Frederic C. Hof, senior U.S. Baghdad embassy adviser Ali Khedery, and U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who eventually resigned in disgust.
The warnings were clear: If the United States and the NATO countries failed to strengthen the hand of the Syrian Opposition Coalition and its Free Syrian Army, the momentum would go to the bloodthirsty Al Qaida mutations that were intent on filling the power vacuum Assad’s brutality opened up in the region. The gangrene would spread.
And it did. Jihadis of the oil-rich and heavily-armed Islamic State – an international consortium of Sunni fanatics that draws nearly as many fighters from Europe, North America, Chechnya, Central Asia and the Arab emirates as it does from Syria and Iraq – have carried out a campaign of pogrom and genocide across an area roughly the size of the Britain. Meanwhile, Assad and his fanatical Shia allies in Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have cunningly concentrated their firepower on innocent Syrians, allowing the Islamic State to seize ground that had been taken by the pro-democracy FSA.
It wasn’t until late last year that FSA brigades started getting American arms and training, but by then, the main FSA leadership, headquartered in Gaziantep on the Turkish border with Syria, had grown tired of waiting. One wing of the leadership is now backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The other is backed by Turkey and Qatar. The CIA is bypassing the FSA leadership altogether, providing small arms and anti-tank rockets to local FSA brigades. This isn’t helping, Sabra said.
“Syrians have ended with the idea that we are victims of the whole world, that the whole world is against us,” he said. It is that sense of abandonment that has driven so many young Syrians into the arms of Islamist groupings like the Islamic State, Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham. “Assad has friends in Tehran, a little bit in China, and in Moscow. The Syrian people have no friends.”
Not particularly useful friends, anyway. In December, 2012, in Morocco, more than 100 UN member states pledged to recognize the umbrella Syrian Opposition Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
“But what does this friendship mean if you recognize my right to defend myself, but you don’t provide something to let me do it? How can I protect myself? These people who go to fight for the Islamic Front and Ahrar ash-Sham and Daash (the Arabic pejorative for the Islamic State), they see there are no bullets in our guns, no money in our pockets, no food, no hope for the future, and we have nothing, just promises,” Sabra said. “So, in front of our eyes, they left our positions, and they joined Daash and Nusra. This was a disaster for us.”
A corner may have been turned in recent days, but the way forward for Syrians still depends on the Obama-led NATO powers and the Arab League directly confronting the Assad regime and his Shia-based terrorist allies, headquartered in Tehran and Beirut. This doesn’t seems likely, so long as Obama remains a hostage to his own nuclear-talks rapprochement with Tehran’s ayatollahs. But destroying the Sunni-based Islamic State won’t be nearly enough.
The NATO countries need to start getting their own houses in order, too, Sabra said. Thousands of the “foreign fighters” who have been lately enlisting with the Islamic State and swarming into Syria and Iraq to slaughter Yazidis, Christians and insufficiently devout Muslims have come from Europe and North America. Rebuilding a multi-confessional Syrian state will require an enormous international effort, especially from successful multicultural countries like Canada. It can be done.
“But terrorism is terrorism,” Sabra said. “We have to fight terrorism, whether it is Sunni, Shia, or even Christian terrorism. Politically, organizationally, and militarily. There is no other way.”