Sunday 25 September 2016

The vista of a third world war becomes appallingly real

As Britain and the US stood off a crumbling Syria, Russia stepped in and added yet more volatility to the international powderkeg

Anthony Cronin

Published 25/10/2015 | 02:30

Allies: Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Allies: Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

The Syrian conflict, and the flood of refugees resulting from it, is beginning to affect European and indeed world politics. Donald Trump, candidate for the American presidency, said that his solution is to send the refugees back immediately to where they came from - blithely ignoring the fact that you cannot, by international law, send refugees from a conflict back home. Though you can send migrants back, that is, if you can determine where they came from.

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The British Home Secretary has taken the opportunity to make the kind of remarks about immigration and the cohesion of society which she had cannily refrained from making in the general election campaign.

In Germany, parties opposed to Angela Merkel have expressed surprise and dismay at the number of migrants which the EU proposed should be settled there - 800,000 when something like 150,000 was the original figure. It looks certain now to far exceed even the new figure.

All this is scarcely surprising considering the fact that the Syrian conflict is itself part of a much larger religious and civil war in which most of the Arab world has an involvement, however peripherally.

This is essentially the conflict between Shia and Sunni Islam and which has more lately spread to Yemen as it has elsewhere. For westerners, it's difficult to understand the theocratic and doctrinal aspects of this civil war. In Europe, we have not experienced a major religious war for more than 400 years. But perhaps the doctrinal differences between the two sides, which mainly concern the matter of descent from the Prophet, are no more difficult for the 20th Century westerners to relate to than the doctrine of transubstantiation might have been for a 17th Century Muslim.

The civic or political differences that go along with the doctrinal ones are in most places the differences between the richer and the poorer; between the Sunnis who have, and the Shia who, generally speaking, have not. In the Yemen, for example, the landlord class was Sunni and their tenants Shia.

As with the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, both sides have large and powerful supporters who contrive to provide them with aid, weapons and ideologies while denying their involvement: in the Sunni case, Saudi Arabia and in the Shia, Iran.

When the EU Emergency Meeting on the refugee and migrant crisis in Brussels effectively broke down last month, most countries were delighted to agree with David Cameron that if the Syrian conflict could be brought to an end the flow of refugees would abate and therefore every effort should be made to bring this about.

The demonisation, however, of Bashar Al-Assad has now gone so far in the West that it would be difficult for even a professional diplomat or peace-broker to begin to see the whole situation in Syria with any clarity, let alone find a solution.

Equally, around Putin, the latest, armed and active recruit to Assad's side, hang the deathly shadows of Stalinism and the Cold War.

No doubt Assad is simply clinging on to power and riches. He would like the old days back, when his wife went shopping in Harrods and his family reigned supreme in Syria. But also he is fighting desperately for his own people's survival and for that of their religion.

Assad is a member of the Alawites, a sect so unorthodox that many Shias and Sunnis alike do not regard them as Muslims at all. They are unpopular on several grounds. First, because of the quasi-Christian content of their beliefs and practices; Secondly because of the rather un-Christian manner in which they provided what amounted to more or less a military elite for the French. This was when France occupied Syria under mandate from the now defunct League of Nations, a period which only ended in 1939 with the outbreak of the second world war.

In the event of Assad's defeat or removal, the Alawites quite probably face rough treatment and perhaps even massacre by the victors. It is little wonder that he fights on with such determination and apparent recklessness. No doubt he has less worthy personal reasons for doing so. But his role as protector of those of his own religion and ethnicity should not be ignored.

On the other hand, his obstinacy in hanging on and the brutality of his methods have brought on him such obloquy that at least to the western media it seems easier to remove him and attempt to negotiate peace in his absence.

But this would not be easy. It would be a prolonged, hard and disorderly task, if only because Assad and the Alawites have allies on the Shia side in the wider Muslim world, most notably Iran.

And besides with Putin, could he need more? This alone guarantees an ominous, worldwide dimension to the attempt which a further intervention in the Middle East situation would invoke and which surely nobody wants. There is fierce opposition to it in both Britain and the United States.

Not all the dodgy dossiers that can be manufactured would this time arouse any enthusiasm in either of the those countries. Nor should it, considering the prospect of war on an international scale that it raises.

There is much talk of the 'moderates' and 'moderate coalitions' waiting to replace Assad. The US had even begun to train, arm and equip a moderate militia to give such a coalition some teeth. But that attempt has now been called off because not enough moderate recruits could be found. They have fled or are helpless in the face of Isil terrorism.

We in the West may not fully understand religious conflicts in terms of the doctrines involved but what we do understand, historically at least, is the ferocity with which they are waged. The Cromwellian wars were still a sort of folk memory in Ireland until very recently, while their Williamite aftermath is still, alas, with us in all its pugnacity and ugliness.

The ruinous situation in Iraq is a case in point. Intervention there has not worked out at all as Bush and Blair intended and seem to have expected.

Today's interventionists would certainly find it extremely hard to sell it to their respective publics.

And now with Putin's engagement in the field, the vista of a third world war springing, like the first, from largely incomprehensible causes, is an appallingly real one.

Sunday Independent

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