Nothing symbolises the cultural diversity and complexity of Syria more than Damascus’ Great Umayyad Mosque. Built on Aramean then Roman foundations, it was a cathedral, then a mosque, even serving as both simultaneously for nearly a century. But the colourful mosaic of Syria is becoming a broken jigsaw. Why is that?
In a word, Iraq. The spectre of Iraq hangs over the way everyone has viewed the Syria crisis for the last two and a half years. Syria is seen through Iraq-tinted spectacles. From the start the media has wanted to see everything in terms of what went wrong in Iraq, and never more so than now.
But Syria is not Iraq. It is so different from Iraq it is hard to know where to begin in listing the differences.
The spectre of Iraq and the US/UK-led destruction of Iraq has held back any meaningful involvement in helping the Syrian opposition. In time the vacuum started to be filled by extremist groups, all too keen to get meaningfully involved. In the first year of the Syrian uprising there were no extremist groups involved at all, in the second year they grew to 5% of the opposition forces, and in the third year they have grown to 15% and rising. Abandoned by the west, Syrian rebels had little choice but to accept the help of extremist Islamist groups in fighting the omnipresent Assad regime, in power for over 40 years and very deeply dug in. What else could they do?
The spectre of Iraq has held back western public opinion from supporting Syria in its quest for a fair new Syria, a Syria where arbitrary arrest and torture, routine under Assad’s Ba’athist system, is finally abolished and political prisoners are set free.
And now the spectre of Iraq has prevented British MPs voting to support military action. Britain has abdicated and sidelined itself, tied itself in tortuous knots made up of Iraqi string.
No one, it seems, can see past the spectre of Iraq, and the media must take its share of the blame in this. The media loves a good crisis, a good war. Suddenly Syria is all over the airwaves, when it was barely getting a mention before the chemical attack. It had become too boring, too routine, averaging about 200 deaths a day, not really worth mentioning, unless of course there was a nice cannibal to report on.
If America takes military action now, it will be doing so for all the wrong reasons and the consequences are by definition unknowable. Syrians are pawns, their fate is being decided by outside players who are now finally, when it is too late, becoming involved for their own reasons, with their own agendas, not for any genuine humanitarian reasons. The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ rule could have been invoked long ago if western powers had wanted. But the spectre of Iraq held them back.
According to Islamic popular tradition, Christ will descend from the Jesus Minaret of Damascus’ Great Umayyad Mosque before the Last Judgement to fight the Antichrist. Never has Syria needed a saviour more than now.
Syria is not Iraq. But it is cruelly haunted by the ghost of Iraq.
Maybe in the future we will all be haunted by the ghost of Syria, for our failure to help its deserving people.