Syria’s nightmare is a regional conflict with global stakes. It exemplifies the eclipse of US efforts at regime changes, whereas Chinese policy holds the promise of economic development. However, time is running out.
As the pulsating beat overwhelmed the terrace of Cocos Prive, an exclusive nightclub and sushi bar in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, the two men were negotiating a deal. After 20 meetings, the arms struggler made his pitch: “Look, you can make a dirty bomb, which would be perfect from the Islamic State.” His price was $2.75 million for enough radioactive cesium to contaminate several city blocks.
In reality, the client was actually an informant in an elaborate sting operation that landed him in jail. According to the Associated Press, it was one of several efforts by nuclear smugglers to shop radioactive material to the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.
The War in Iraq and the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” have resulted in massive destabilization across the Middle East. Its center is now in Syria.
From Iraq to Syria, blunder to blunder
In the George W. Bush era, the White House believed that the fall of Saddam Hussein would be the first domino to tip other autocratic states in the region’s glorious march toward Western-style democracy. That domino theory reflected gross misjudgments that would violently destabilize the region, as I argued at the time.
In March 2003, a U.S.-led military coalition, with some 250,000 US troops, entered Iraq from Kuwait. The regime of Saddam Hussein fell a month later. Total war costs amounted to an estimated $1.4-$2.2 trillion (Congressional Budget Office) to $3.5 trillion (Joint Economic Committee of Congress). Despite more than $57 billion of U.S. aid in 2003-12, Iraq remains fragile and unstable.
As the battles shifted to Syria, former colonial powers – the U.S., France, and the UK – rushed to protect their interests in the region, in the name of freedom and democracy. In mid-2014, I warned about the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and its “Dream of the 21st Century Caliphate.” Months later, when Washington launched still another “war against terror,” I argued that it was just “the kind of escalation that the Islamic State has hoped.”
Ironically, Moscow and Teheran are now keeping ISIL in check, not Washington. The Syrian Ba’athist government relies on the support of Russia and Iran, as well as the Lebanese Hezbollah and Syrian-based Palestinian group of PFLP-GC and other splinter groups. The opposition coalition receives logistical and political support from major Sunni states, including Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, along with military, political, and logistical support from Western powers, such as the U.S., France, and Britain. The latter also support the Kurds with Iraqi Kurdistan.
In turn, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are openly backing the Army of Conquest, a coalition of rebels, which include the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front and a Salafi collation and Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) receives direct support from many non-state groups across the region.
Brutal fighting has turned Syria into a living hell.
In the past four years, a brutal civil war has taken a heavy toll on Syria’s economy severely damaging public and private assets, including health education, energy, water and sanitation, agriculture, transportation, housing and infrastructure. According to the World Bank, total damages for half a dozen governorate capitals amount to $3.7-$4.5 billion.
Syrian GDP has contracted by over 15 percent in 2011-14 and it will plunge another 16 percent in the ongoing year. Living standards have plunged by 30-40 percent and the country is now at par with Laos and Myanmar.
The estimated death toll has soared to over 220,000 people. It is forcing every second Syrian to leave home. The number of internally displaced persons exceeds 7.6 million. Every second or third refugee in the world is Syrian. That is 4 million people. Most struggle in neighboring Arab countries and increasingly in European countries.
As international peace talks in Vienna ended, diplomats called for a nationwide ceasefire and hope to continue talks in the coming weeks. Once again, the Obama White House has flip-flopped its policy by announcing it would send “special forces” to Syria, while a new U.S.-backed umbrella alliance – the Democratic Forces of Syria that joins the Syrian rebel groups and US-backed Kurdish militia – launched an offensive against the ISIL.
In the 1980s, the U.S.-supported mujahideen militants in Afghanistan – portrayed as “freedom fighters” in Washington – gave rise to Osama bin Laden and Wahhabi al-Qaeda extremists that were behind the failed attack against the World Trade Center in 1993 and the successful one in 2001. A decade after September 11, President Bush’s invasion of Iraq led to the Islamic State and its offspring.
Nevertheless, the White House continues to support, train and arm “good insurgents” while fighting “bad jihadists.” While mainstream U.S. media has bought this narrative, a small but vocal and very high-level group of retired American military officers, including Obama’s former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has publicly come out, supporting the Russian intervention, and calling for a U.S.-Russian partnership to defeat ISIL.
From regime change to economic development
Historically, the circle is closing. U.S.-sponsored regime changes in the Middle East began in March 1949, when the CIA-supported coup d’état demolished Syria’s nascent multiparty democracy, which eventually led to the rise of Hafez al-Assad – the father of its current ruler.
Due to its century-long suffering from colonialism, China has great concerns about quasi-imperial interventions. Since the 1980s, “the enemy of your enemy is my friend” stance guides Washington. A very different approach is evolving in Beijing: “No peace, no development; no development, no peace.”
In the medium-term, U.S. oil reliance on the Middle East is steadily decreasing, while China’s is increasing. In 2013, China surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest net importer of crude oil. In Beijing, that is an opportunity because economic interests support strategic cooperation.
Moreover, China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiatives hold a great potential to the old trade ties between China and the region, while Turkey and Iran play a central role between Europe and Asia. China’s special envoy to the Middle East, Ambassador Gong Xiaosheng, believes that the Silk Road initiative could play a vital role in the Middle East’s peace efforts.
As Chinese policy stresses the opportunity of development, it seeks economic cooperation among the Sunni and Shia in the Middle East, between Israel and the Palestine, the region’s oil exporters and importers, its rich and poor. The new multilateral development banks exemplify these ideas. While Egypt has joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a founding member, the Bank’s associate members include Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait.
Time is running out
If Washington and Beijing could find a common multipolar ground against the global threat of terrorism, much more would follow.
In the absence of drastic de-escalation, the first weapons of mass destruction by the Islamic State in the U.S., Europe, or elsewhere are no longer a matter of principle, but a matter of time.
After the Arab Spring, there have been four reported attempts where criminal networks sought to sell radioactive material through Moldova alone. One investigation unveiled an effort to sell bomb-grade uranium to a buyer from the Middle East. It was the first known case of its kind – but it will not be the last one.
Syria’s Nightmare: Diverging US and Chinese Policies, and Global Repercussions is republished with permission from The Difference Group