Adrian Hamilton: We're worrying about Syria for all the wrong reasons



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 voiced concern at 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 best conclusion now, pronounced Professor Michael Clarke, head of the Royal United Services Institute this week, would be for President Assad to be removed in a coup that would leave the basic system intact. So much then for the hopes of democracy. Syrian protesters, like their fellow-protesters throughout the Arab Spring, rise up to end a system of political suppression and commercial kleptocracy and all we can say is that the ruler might have to go but the regime should stay.

It's a view, it has to be said, that one hears more and more in Egypt, where the army has offered up President Mubarak but wants to keep the old ways and its own position for the future. Likewise in Bahrain, when the forces of Saudi Arabia were brought in to suppress a revolt by the majority. It's a view usually accompanied by the spectre of fundamentalism among the Islamic groups at the forefront of change.

The West has always used security as an excuse for supporting authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and one's fear is that it is about to do the same now in Syria and elsewhere. The preoccupation 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 deliberately promoted by the US and Israel, along with Britain, to further the isolation of Iran that they seek as a primary aim of policy.

If there was really such a conflict, Iraq, a Shia country, would be intervening to support Assad and the Alawites against the Sunni majority. Instead they are doing – in so far as they are doing anything – the opposite. Even Turkey, a traditionally secular country with an Islamic government, is supposed to be thinking on these lines.

It isn't. Turkey's interests, as with Iraq's and Iran's, are basically political not religious. The Iranians, an Aryan people, have always had difficulties with their Arab neighbour of whatever their political hue. They feel beleaguered by Western hostility and Gulf hatreds but, in practical terms, they have done remarkably little to intervene in the Syrian conflict any more than the Bahraini one closer to home.

The Syria of the Assad family was a close ally, not for theological reasons but because it supported them in their confrontations with the West. In the same way, Iraq is far too weak to throw its weight around in any directions. Turkey, which is undoubtedly assertive, wants to become a power broker in the Middle East not a participant in religious conflict.

Of course, the Syrian conflict has ramifications outside. What matters, or should matter, at this time is 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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