In 1979, as the Iranian Revolution toppled the Shah, the legendary Middle East specialist and historian Bernard Lewis advised western governments on how to respond to this loss of a key ally in the region. The so-called ‘Bernard Lewis Plan’ proposed the ‘Balkanisation’ of large parts of the Middle East. Western special forces would actively encourage rebellions by minority groups demanding autonomy and create a ‘crescent of crisis’. In this way, strong, nationally cohesive states opposed to the West could be dismantled from within and replaced with a mosaic of warring mini-states.
This policy of ‘divide and win’ was nothing new, of course. Under French mandate (1921-36), Syria was divided into five states along ethnic and sectarian lines.
Upon gaining independence, the Syrian people rejected the idea of federalisation and opted instead for one pluralistic, secular state which guaranteed the rights of all its constituent minorities. Syria became one of the most formidable nations in the Middle East as a result.
And now Syria is teetering on the brink of chaos as disparate rebel elements seek to depose the brutal and corrupt dictatorship of Bashar Al Assad.
Last week, the British defence think-tank, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), published a ‘Syria Crisis Briefing’ for its members and policymakers. The report contained several surprises and valuable insights into the way the West’s security establishment perceives the current turmoil in the Middle East.
The specialists who contributed to the report concur that a diplomatic solution in Syria is no longer possible, and that the crisis now is not about Al Assad, and the way in which he will fall, but the regional implications of the sectarian civil war engulfing the whole country.
Events in Syria have already affected the stability of Lebanon where Hezbollah is armed and supported by Al Assad’s regime; Lebanon-based supporters and opponents of Al Assad’s regime have been involved in several fierce gun battles in recent months.
The RUSI report considers all the possible interventions the West could make in Syria. An all-out invasion (presumably without the support of Russia and China) remains highly unlikely although it is, we are told, being prepared for ‘in several western capitals’. The writers point out that the opposition is too fragmented to form a stable, alternative regime, with the likelihood that occupation forces would face another, highly undesirable, long-term insurgency as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Syria’s estimated stockpile of 1,000 tonnes of chemical weapons, along with the possibility that it could be appropriated by international terror groups, remains on the table as a potential justification for attack or invasion, however.
With a British naval taskforce already deployed in the eastern Mediterranean, a maritime blockade is possible although the report notes that, with Russian and Iranian shipping delivering arms to the regime as well as helping it circumvent sanctions, such a step may result in the UK navy having to “take them on”.
A ‘Protected Zone’ in Idlib, near the Turkish border, where opposition forces could muster and be trained, is also mooted; a measure which, the report admits, is “very clearly crossing the line into military enforcement”.
While it may look as though the West has been sitting on its hands, we learn that British, French and US Special Forces have been operating inside Syria for several months; not only to gather intelligence about the various opposition groups, their make-up and their ideology, but in more proactive ways.
Under-the-radar operations include arming and advising the opposition, financial support (Saudi Arabia is to pay the rebel fighters) and a variety of other clandestine operations, including providing the opposition with intelligence, sabotage, fomenting a coup d’etat and encouraging defections.
In addition, CIA officers on the ground in southern Turkey are actively intervening to ensure that Saudi and Qatari weapons are getting into the hands of the right kind of rebels and not the international fighters who have already made substantial inroads into Syria’s chaos.
There are also plans for cyber-warfare against the regime using destructive viruses such as the CIA-Israeli developed ‘Flame’ which took down computer systems crucial for Iran’s nuclear research programme earlier this year.
Meanwhile, groups with ambitions for autonomy have profited from the current unrest and the deployment of military and security forces elsewhere. The Kurds in the North of Syria have seized control of five provinces and now wish to establish an autonomous region, as their Iraqi brethren have done.
The sectarian tensions which are spreading throughout the region are producing additional breakaway movements. In Syria, there is talk of establishing an Alawite state — the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Homs and Aleppo are seen as part of this process — and three Sunni provinces are also calling for independence.
Iraq has already undergone a de facto partitioning — with a (booming) Kurdish state in the North, the Shiite in the south and the Sunnis in the West and northwest of the country. In Libya too, the eastern part of the country has declared itself autonomous.
Similar tensions between Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and other minorities exist in Turkey and Iran. So whilst there is a real and present danger of the internationalisation of the Syrian crisis as a result of confrontation by proxy (Iran, Hezbollah and Iraq with Al Assad’s regime; Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other Sunni states with the rebels) there is an increasing fear that civil sectarian conflict might be exported too.
As in post-revolutionary Libya, the climate of sectarianism, tribalism, mistrust and fear in Syria is throwing up organisations and militias based on narrow, local agendas. The Lebanese civil war that erupted under just such circumstances lasted 15 years.
I am not suggesting that the West is deliberately fomenting the current drive for fragmentation in Libya and Syria. It doesn’t need to. Dictators like Muammar Gaddafi and Al Assad may have papered over the region’s faultlines, but only the people can stop it from falling apart.
Abdel Bari Atwan is editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi.