Crying wolf, foreign agendas and Israel’s role in destabilising Syria

As Assad’s brutal crackdown continues on opposition protesters, calls for foreign intervention are becoming more common.

Syria unrest
More and more calls for foreign intervention are coming from Syrians bearing the brunt of Assad’s crackdown [AFP]

Suva, Fiji – It’s been a dismally predictable, transparent and nasty lie by regimes under assault in the Arab Spring that the mass uprisings are being whipped up by foreign agitators – usually meaning Israel and the United States, maybe France, Europe generally, now sometimes Turkey or, heaven forfend, Al Jazeera journalists. Only the most gullible swallow these claims: their principal effect is to make the claimants look like buffoons.

Still, a government’s crying wolf doesn’t mean a wolf isn’t around somewhere. It’s equally gullible to assume that foreign agendas have no role in Syria, for example.

The flood of western money, supplies, intelligence agents, satellite and drone monitoring and promises of every kind has been lavish everywhere in the Arab Spring. They have been serving outside interests in the time-honoured way of all revolutions: identifying new clients for backroom deals, playing on big-man ambitions, fostering cupidity where it was only a seed, manipulating jealousies and fears, playing off old internecine vendettas and, the new favourite, heating up sectarian bigotry. If these machinations are more low-profile in Syria, this doesn’t mean they aren’t operating.

“The interests driving this foreign involvement haven’t changed in decades: the geopolitics of oil and… Israel.

The interests driving this foreign involvement haven’t changed in decades: the geopolitics of oil and, as a related but also self-standing issue, Israel. These are constants, and don’t tell us much. Less obvious is the exact strategy serving these goals, particularly the subtext of ostentatious calls for “democracy”. Democracy became a foreign policy goal for Western powers during the Cold War when inept dictator allies kept triggering revolutions against themselves and toppling. The real goal of “democracy” was stability: instability served only where a great power wanted to pick a fight over influence.

Since the end of the Cold War, Western interests have focused almost exclusively on stability, that pillar of pax economicus beloved by investment bankers, primary-product extractors and tourism developers everywhere – with one exception: the Middle East. The hypocrisy of Western democracy promotion in the Middle East has been described too much to need further mention here, but it does bear pointing out that instability is preferred by at least one key player: Israel.

Israel’s track record of fostering regional unrest is an old story. It’s now a well-worn observation that the US invasion and occupation of Iraq – which dismayed the whole world and shattered US credibility in foreign affairs – was a splendid success from the perspective of its pro-Israel architects. Their core goal in promoting the war was to eliminate Iraq as a military threat to Israel and this miracle has been neatly accomplished. Oh, sure, Iraqi society is now a bomb-cratered version of its former self, but that too is a friendly outcome – insurance against a strong Iraqi state ever rising again.

Fomenting instability

And yes, it’s a reckless strategy, as Iraq’s splitting along ethnic and sectarian lines has created an incubator for al-Qaeda. But security-services exporters like the US and Israel are raking up big bucks in the war on terror, so a rosy aura of dollar signs hovers even over that grim prospect. Otherwise, any chance of Iraqi civil strife morphing into an independent military role for Iraq on the regional stage is securely blocked by a thick net of US arms deals and private contracts. 

Rub hands together and smile.

Reducing Iraq to a bloody morass of sectarian vendettas was hardly the first such victory for Israel. It’s too often forgotten these days that Israel also stoked the bloody Lebanese civil war by funding and arming its proxy Maronite Christian allies against the PLO and Sunni factions – pumping up old schisms that might otherwise have resolved more quietly. The scars of that war, which still run deep for Lebanese, still secure benefits to Israel. Even the rise of Hezbollah has not unparalysed Lebanon’s foreign policy, securing Israel’s northern border.

And Lebanon was no accident. It behooves us to recall also what was once a much-cited article by Israeli analyst Oded Yanon, “A Strategy for Israel in the 1980s”, whose gist was reproduced in that notorious 1996 neo-con manifesto, “A Clean Break” which framed the war in Iraq. Writing in 1982, while the Lebanese civil war was still raging, Yanon outlined Israel’s interests in whipping up ethnic and sectarian conflict:

Lebanon’s total dissolution into five provinces serves as a precedent for the entire Arab world, including Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula, and is already following that track. The dissolution of Syria and Iraq later on into ethnically and religiously unique areas, such as in Lebanon, is Israel’s primary target on the Eastern front in the long run, while the dissolution of the military power of those states serves as the primary short term target.

Syria will fall apart, in accordance with its ethnic and religious structure… This state of affairs will be the guarantee for peace and security in the area in the long run, and that aim is already within our reach today… Every kind of inter-Arab confrontation will assist us in the short run and will shorten the way to the more important aim of breaking up Iraq into denominations as in Syria and in Lebanon.* (emphasis added)

Since Israel has followed this template ever since, remembering Yanon’s piece lets us read some errant tea leaves of the Syrian opposition’s present debates. That opposition is a mixed bag, with sharp disagreements, particularly about external intervention, as well as whether, when and how to negotiate with the government. These disagreements are certainly sincere and most are principled. Left alone, consensus could gel. But Israel’s interests, which weave through them like a fog, run in a different direction: to steer Syrian events away from any process that will generate a representative, stable and strong country in the long run.

“Israel’s interests… to steer Syrian events away from any process that will generate a representative, stable and strong country in the long run.”

Far preferable for Israel is to keep things polarised to ensure a catastrophic internal crisis that will dismantle Syria’s security forces, permanently fragment its political elite and paralyse domestic politics in bitter internecine squabbles (with rival foreign supporters), which as a package will ensure that a strong state can’t be rebuilt. Thus Syria’s independent role in the region would evaporate and Israel’s foreign policy prerogatives will be secured.

Even more perfect would be a Syrian collapse defined by sectarian bigotry, a game at which Israel enjoys grand mastery.

Of course, Israel bases its whole existence ideologically on the premise that the Middle East and the world at large are entirely steered by bigotry, but this worldview has also proved useful as realist foreign policy. It’s always easy to turn idle biases into rabid racism. The Mossad is also brilliant at infiltrating Arab movements, as Palestinians will bitterly attest, and has been sending agents across the Syrian border to gather intelligence and stoke “tribal” divisions for decades. It can certainly do this with much greater facility now that the country is in such upheaval.

Hence it’s only sensible to assume that Israeli plants are all over the Syrian movement, among and within factions, playing off arguments about best ways forward. And as Israel’s best outcome is crisis, polarisation and violence that will generate a weak Syria in the end, those arguing about negotiating with the regime must consider which of the voices rejecting negotiation are sincere and which are Israeli hand-puppets.

Destroy the whole political order

Israel’s game would therefore find great advantages in the troubling tendency of the Arab Spring to equate “regime change” with ejection of a hated head of state. It’s the age-old passion of the oppressed to storm the castle with pitchforks and eject the tyrant – the cruel duke, extortionist tax collector, kleptocratic mayor or feral queen – and send him or her packing. Regime change in such revolts not usually the goal: satisfaction is gained by getting a marginally more decent duke, tax collector, mayor or queen.

If true regime change is desired – that is, change in the whole political order – then fixating on removing one figure will expend a movement’s energies on political drama yet leave the regime intact, like waves crashing on rocks and sending up spray. To move the rocks, a different calculus must be made.

“The mistake of the January movement in focussing so specifically on Mubarak… Syrians have not quite grasped that they face the same dilemma… its still a regime durable enough to change leaders in a crisis.”

A quick look across the Arab world confirms that regime change faces very different conditions. Yes, where state power and wealth are concentrated in a single venal family, as in Tunisia, whole chunks of the regime can be forced onto a couple of planes and shipped out, leaving the power bloc sufficiently weakened yet the shell of government sufficiently functional for reformers to wrangle real if tortuous change over months and years. But this strategy can backfire elsewhere.

If a thuggish dictator rules through a powerful party with institutionalised monopolies over force and terror, as in Saddam’s Iraq, upon his removal, the regime may indeed crack and splinter, yet leave dangerously strong shards fighting over a new order that may emerge as worse. (Of all the dreadful conditions that humanity invents for itself, the most likely to favour the nefarious climbers is unpremeditated anarchy.) If a dictator has avoided creating any party and kept the government institutionally weak in order to use private channels to dispense favours and foster jealousies among the population in order to defuse any united opposition, as Gaddafi did in Libya, then upon his removal, not only the government, but the nation itself (which was indeed prevented from properly existing) may shatter into a thousand pieces.

In all these examples, the state is brittle and easily cracked; what varies is the aftermath. By contrast, a more institutionally sophisticated and rugged regime, as in Egypt, can prove much more resilient. Under Mubarak, security elites have become fused with economic elites: the state’s diverse arms function like one machine with big business.

Hence its members do not rely on a figurehead but on each other, and will tend to close ranks in a crisis.

This resilience explains why mass mobilisation in Egypt has not (yet) seriously dented the culture of state power: mass revolt has no direct way to challenge the military’s vast and iron grip on the national economy. Egypt even lacks an independent business sector that might become alienated from the state and defect to use its economic clout on behalf of the revolt. And since Egypt’s ruling, generals enrich themselves by holding that clout themselves, they can hardly find compensation in the dignity of returning to the barracks. They have everything to lose from democracy, and know it (as Steven Walt has recently pointed out in Foreign Policy).

Hence, the mistake of the January movement in focusing so specifically on Mubarak. Yes, Mubarak built and ran Egypt’s regime, but it can run just fine without him. In other words, it was not “his” regime. Going by their frequent references to “the regime of President Bashir al-Assad”, Syrians have not quite grasped that they face the same dilemma. The Syrian regime is smaller and less wealthy, and now haemorrhaging members and legitimacy daily, but it’s still a regime durable enough to change leaders in a crisis.

With or without Assad

The durability of the regimes in Syria and Egypt does not mean that mass revolution is doomed or should stop. On the contrary: only by making a country ungovernable can a democratic movement force a repressive state elite to consider robust reform. Until elites are convinced of this, it is indisputably pointless, even ruinous, to negotiate with a government that is still murdering and torturing its opponents with impunity. At best, the regime will negotiate only to save its own skin and make as few reforms as possible, while awaiting its moment to regain the high seat and wreak vengeance on those who dared to trust it, as we have seen in Egypt and Bahrain.

“The trick is to persuade those whose main interest is their own wealth and priveleges that the system which secured those privileges is unsustainable and preserving them requires a new one.”

But the plain truth is that mass street action alone can’t dismantle the deeper structure of power that makes up these regimes. To go after a whole regime, in a strong state like Syria, requires leveraging the leadership into real negotiations toward staged reform. This calls for careful and sober political midwifery, rather than grand gestures focussed on symbolic targets whose fall may only veil the regime’s survival.

The trick is to persuade those whose main interest is their own wealth and privileges that the system which secured those privileges is unsustainable and preserving them requires a new one. Truly convince state elites of this and they will suddenly show themselves willing to discuss change on profound levels.

Such is the lesson from South Africa, anyway. Or they will be willing to ship themselves out – with amnesty, of course. Amnesty is treated by activists in Egypt these days as a dirty word, but they can take a hint from Latin American revolutionaries, who in several cases found it the best way to get the bastards out in the end without killing and maiming yet more innocent people.
This elite shift should be helped by a quantum change, already observable, in how power politics will operate in the 21st century. Repressive states all around the world are already discovering that their old tactics are not working – that they can no longer neutralise mass unrest through deceit, bribery, terror and local proxies with the same facility – because cyberspace has wrecked their capacity freely to steal, cheat, terrorise and lie their way to public passivity. Thus the Arab Spring is signalling an irrevocable change in how state power works.

In these new conditions, it isn’t clear whether the old wolf pack of “foreign interests” can adapt. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Arab Spring has been watching western powers slip and stumble around this new environment.

Since the end of the cold war, trillions of dollars and euros have been spent in the Middle East and west Asia on war, regime change, hearts-and-minds development projects, “Free This-or-That” broadcast media, winging and dining proto-leaderships, grooming activists in multi-million-dollar “democracy camps” – all the old Cold War methods, still lumbering arthritically along, not to mention outright invasions or massive air campaigns at costs so stratospheric as to exceed mortal imagination.

Yet, as western foreign policy instruments, evidence of success from this cornucopia is paltry, as the assassinations, massacres, torture and general hypocrisy that have also been part of this package are exposed and tweeted in seconds among millions.

Consider the results: say, Karzai’s leadership in Afghanistan – not only limited, corrupt and inept, but peppered with regular scathing denunciations of US military methods and presence. Or the Maliki government’s chilly boycott of those dour ceremonies marking the US military “withdrawal” from Iraq. Or serious dissent in now-fragmented Libya about whether western powers should have the expected access to the country’s wealth. Or the Egyptian military government’s actually attacking human rights offices funded by its US patron.

Add to this the open sneers and hostile chants by millions of pro-democracy demonstrators in the street disgusted with US and European “pro-democracy” hypocrisy. The cold war never saw such graphic embarrassments follow great-power patronage so consistently and swiftly.

Still, foreign intervention is playing the game with frightening skill in one respect. Those seeking instability, as the ticket to weak states, have proved expert at inflaming latent sectarian devils and turning once-tolerant societies into cauldrons of snarling ethnic paranoias.

So while we sneer at transparently bogus state claims that foreign agitators are the true moteurs of these mass rebellions, we should still take heed: at least one wolf is prowling in the fold.

Virginia Tilley is Director of Governance Studies at the University of the South Pacific at Suva and author of The One-State Solution and many articles and essays on Middle East politics, some of which appear on her blog, Unpetrified Opinion.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.