Adrian Hamilton: We've got the wrong fears over Syria

The intensifying civil war in Syria has set off a storm of anguish over the ramifications for the region. There's not a television report or political speech that doesn't harp on about the danger of sectarian conflict spreading to adjoining countries.

Would that this were an expression of humanitarian concern about the flood of refugees crossing the borders into Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. But it isn't. What seems to concern the politicians, as the pundits, is the impact on the power balance in the Middle East.

It's a concern that wasn't, it should be said, voiced when the fight against Russian occupation of Afghanistan and the consequent civil war there drove millions into neighbouring Iran and Pakistan.

Iran at one time had to cope with some two million refugees in camps. It still has something like a million. But no one then worried about what Afghanistan would do to the region, although the impact on Pakistan was particularly unsettling.

So why the concern with Syria now? Is this a reflection of the sense of helplessness that the West faces in this conflict? Or does it presage intervention on the grounds of security beyond Syria's borders? Perhaps both. But it has led to troubling assumptions both about the likely sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia in the region and the course of events in Syria itself.

The West has always used security as an excuse for supporting authoritarian regimes in the Middle East; one's fear is that it is about to do the same now in Syria. The preocupation with Sunni-Shia confrontation and the threat behind the Muslim Brotherhood is just part of it. In so far as it is true, it is something that has been promoted by the US and Israel, along with Britain, to further the isolation of Iran that they seek as a primary aim of policy.

The Syria of the Assad family was a close ally of Iran not for theological reasons but because it supported them in their confrontations with the West.

Of course the Syrian conflict has ramifications outside. What should matter are the quarter of a million people fleeing the fighting abroad and an estimated million-and-a-half displaced at home. We should be concentrating our efforts at helping them – not worrying ourselves with regional nightmares of our own imagining.

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