Syria puts al-Qaeda and west on same side
Between now and Easter, the landscape – parched and arid in the hot summers – Syria becomes a riot of poppies, primroses, gentians, and fritillaries. There’s an abundance of spectacular rocky escarpments, strewn from time to time with old stone towns and evidence of an extraordinary past.
The Romans built the vast complex at Palmyra. The Crusaders built the impregnable Crac des Chevaliers – a huge moated castle close to the Mediterranean. Its great stone cities of Damascus and Aleppo are amongst the best preserved in the Middle East. At Easter time Aleppo clatters to the sound of wooden crosses being dragged across the cobbled streets and chanting priests celebrating their risen Christ.
Today Syria is at war with itself. The regime has been an oppressive, intolerant rock amid the bloodshed that has convulsed neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq. That “rock” has been secured at terrible cost – tens of thousands killed, many more tortured and incarcerated. But its “stability” ultimately suited the world.
So today, the Arab League, the British, and many other Western governments and, as of yesterday, al-Qaeda, are now committed to the overthrow of the dynasty that has ruled Syria by force for nearly half a century, and which is now rocketing and shelling its own people. Did I say al-Qaeda? We are in terrifying times. There are forces in play in this new Syrian landscape, of armed civil war, that represent perhaps one of the most dangerous and explosive scenarios seen in modern history.
Little more than a decade after 9/11, al-Qaeda and the west, are somehow together in the march on Damascus. Some of AQ’s leader, Ayman al Zawahri’s words yesterday were at times interchangeable with those of the Arab League and the Western discourse on the floor of the United Nations. This is a version of the ‘Great Game’ that even our cyber age may find impossible to replicate. At its heart though is the eternal struggle between Sunni and Shia Islam in which the West has never yet managed to play a successful hand.
Our times have seen external intervention in Libya and Iraq with hard lessons in each. We have seen too, spontaneous local expression in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and more – there has been spontaneity in Libya and Syria too. But Syria is both geographically and politically a long way from Libya. It is geographically and politically very close to Iran and Saudi Arabia.
These are highly dangerous times in which there are almost no obvious options.
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