Syria: The defining issue of our generation

Amir Taheri
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“We are here to protest against the bombing of Syria by Donald Trump and Theresa May,” said the placard waving young man sporting a ferocious beard.

“Killing Muslims must be stopped,” added the middle-aged lady dressed all in black with a demeanor of a diva.


Our interlocutors were among a handful of activists from the anti-war coalition spending part of their weekend venting their hatred of Trump and America, and presumably of capitalism and imperialism in general, in front of an empty US Embassy in London.

We asked whether they would also demonstrate in front of the Russian Embassy in Bayswater, a posher part of London?

The answer was a chagrined look all around. How could we not understand that in their Manichaean world the role of evil was reserved solely for the Western democracies?

Over the past decade or so Russia has waged war against Georgia, in Ossetia ad Abkhazia, attacked Ukraine, annexed the Crimean Peninsula, turned Chechnya into a pile of rubble and driven thousands out of their villages in Ingushetia and Dagestan without the Anti-War Coalition waving a single placard.

When we come to Syria, the anti-war coalition, one of whose big beasts Jeremy Corbyn is now leader of the British Labour Party, deigns to remember that Russia has been bombing Syria, killing countless civilians, since 2015.

In some cases, intense hatred shown against Western democracies may be prompted by self-loathing, a common disease in many other societies including Russia

Amir Taheri

Blizzard of destruction

Under Russian attack from air and land, Syria’s most populous city Aleppo has suffered a level of destruction never seen since the Mongol Invasion in the Middle Ages. And yet no anti-war coalition militant, least of all Corbyn, turned up to demand that the blizzard of death and destruction released by the Russia stop.

The fact that the minimalist American-British-French missile launch against Bashar al-Assad’s alleged chemical weapons’ sites did not amount to “bombing Syria” as such didn’t matter. Nor did our protesters care about the fact that no one had been killed in the US-led operation and that “killing Muslims” was a rather exaggerated claim bearing in mind that there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world.

In some cases, intense hatred shown against Western democracies may be prompted by self-loathing, a common disease in many other societies including Russia. The only difference is that in Western societies giving expression to that self-loathing is risk-free, indeed somehow chic, while it is severely repressed in Russia.

In Washington, London or Paris you could express dissent even beyond reasonable limits without suffering punishment. In Moscow, however, you could be shot even in Red Square or, if you flee Russia, risk being murdered with chemical substances in Gloucester.

In other cases, the pro-Russian position taken by some elements in the West is prompted by nostalgia for the “good old days” when Soviet ideology, represented by Mother Russia, challenged the global status quo and promised a golden future beyond “earth-devouring Imperialism”.

All that gives Russia a distinct advantage in what is at times, erroneously I believe, termed “a new Cold war.” In terms of power Russia is in no position to challenge the global status. With a GDP of $1.5 trillion it lags far behind the United Sates with almost $20 trillion.

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The US military budget is more than times that of Russia’s. And in terms of soft power, including scientific, cultural and artistic fields, the American “Great Satan” remains far more attractive. People queue in Moscow ad Vladivostok for those easy to eat and hard to digest McDonalds. But no one lines up in Washington of Paris for a nice bowl of borscht.

To be sure, Russia is a nuclear “superpower”. But its nuclear arsenal, as President Vladimir Putin has pointed out on occasions, is old, not to say antiquated. The “new generation” of undetectable nuclear warheads that Putin promised on the eve of his re-election may still be a long way down the road. In any case, no one seriously envisages a thermonuclear war or even a new arms race if only because Russia lacks the wherewithal to keep up with the Western Joneses.

So what we have is a lukewarm war in which Russia’s assets consist mainly of the anti-West constituencies inside Western democracies plus the veto power that Russia has in the United Nations’ Security Council.

In the case of Syria, the two become interlinked. This is why Corbyn, like his French counterpart Jean-Luc Melanchon, and other anti-West leaders in Europe, insist that any Western military intervention in Syria should first be ratified by the United Nations Security Council.

UN approval

Interestingly, they don’t demand that Russia’s military intervention should also be subject to approval by the UN Security Council. This is because Russia can never master a majority in the Security Council. (Its last resolution there last week, seeking to condemn the US-led missile attack on Bashar’s alleged chemical sites, won the votes only of China and Bolivia!)

In other words, the pro-Russia constituency in the West wants the Western democracies to give Moscow a veto on their policy without securing a similar advantage vis-à-vis Russia. The Russian propaganda scheme in his “lukewarm war” is aimed at sowing confusion in Western democracies, destroying trust in democratic leaders and institutions, including the media, and preventing the formation of a consensus on any major issues.

Thus while the Western democracies have far more power than Russia to influence global events they won’t be able to use more than a fraction of it without Moscow’s assent. Russia, however, would be able to use all of the little power it has.

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As things are, Putin, helped by the anti-West constituencies inside Western democracies, is playing a weak hand well to his advantage. In most other circumstances one might have said: Well, why not? Why shouldn’t a weak power try to exploit the adversary’s weaknesses?

The problem, however, is that Syria isn’t just a power game. It is a tragedy in every sense of the term. More than half a million have died and a further three million injured. Half the nation’s population has been driven out of their homes and even their country.

This conflict has gone beyond the level of popular uprising, civil war or even regional proxy wars, to become a tragedy that produces nothing but losers. Syria has become the defining issue of our generation. To use it as a means of propping up Putin or his second fiddles, the mullahs of Tehran, in a sinister regional power game is the height of folly.

By supporting Putin’s illusion of victory in Syria, as a larger version of Chechnya, the pro-Russian constituency in the West merely prolong the tragedy.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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