International activists should take the road to Damascus, not Gaza

AS the Arab Spring becomes the Arab Summer and with the Middle East set to burst on to our TV screens this weekend with the Irish-owned ship MV Saoirse sailing to join the international flotilla to Gaza, it’s an appropriate time to take stock.

In Egypt, the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak has emboldened the Muslim Brotherhood. The movement which gave rise to al-Qaida and Hamas is widely predicted to emerge as the largest political force after the elections planned for later this year.

Having demanded Mubarak’s resignation, many of the big powers are belatedly admitting to themselves that Mubarak was not so bad after all. They might soon come to say the same about Yemen. The autocratic president has fled but nobody believes liberal democracy is just around the corner.

Likewise in Libya, even as NATO forces continue to strafe Colonel Gaddafi’s installations, there is a grim realisation that the Benghazi-based rebels are not exactly the French Resistance, even if intervention on the eve of Gaddafi’s onslaught against Misrata probably saved countless lives.

After al-Qaida’s involvement in the anti-Gaddafi revolt was exposed, the most compelling argument for backing the rebels became the questionable assertion that a failure to support the al-Qaida-infiltrated revolution will convince the non-al-Qaida rebels to join the terrorist organisation. But, of course, this is a losing argument. If supporting al-Qaida is a tolerable default position for the rebels, then how can it be contended that they will be preferable to Gaddafi?

That Gaddafi has still not been finished off is an indictment of NATO. The principle governments involved — the Americans, the British and the French — and their publics, know Gaddafi poses no actual threat to them and that their military intervention does not serve any vital interests. So they fight half-heartedly and, in the Europeans’ case, run down their military capacity at an alarming rate in the process.

Some of the regimes which were looking shaky have stabilised. In Morocco and Jordan, their Western-backed monarchs have headed off the reformists at the pass. These oil-poor countries might finally be heading towards a situation where their parliaments — not their kings — have the largest say.

In Bahrain, the Shia opposition has been brutally put down, but at what long-term cost in terms of seeding resentment? In the rest of the Gulf, the populaces have either long since been bought off or, as in Saudi Arabia’s case, are cowed into submission.

The West turned a blind eye to what happened in Bahrain. In essence, they seem to be saying that it was unnecessarily brutal but the cost of allowing a country to fall into the pro-Iranian camp was too high.

But amidst the many threats presented by the political bushfire now engulfing the Arab world, a unique opportunity is presented by Syria. Unlike, say, in Saudi Arabia for all its many faults, it’s hard to imagine things could get worse there. The anti-regime protests in Syria are a welcome departure from the unattractive choices posed elsewhere.

The second President Assad is just a big a rogue as his late father. He is an illicit nuclear proliferator. Israel’s bombing of his North Korean-built, Iranian-financed nuclear reactor in 2007 did not end Assad’s nuclear adventures. He also has a large stockpile of chemical weapons including sarin gas and the warheads required to spray it around the region.

Aside from its mushrooming unconventional arsenals, Assad is a major sponsor of terrorism. He has allowed his country to be used as a transit point for terrorists en route to Iraq and Syria is second only to Iran in its patronage of Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas, both of which have their bases in Damascus.

If the Assad regime were deposed, it would represent a major setback to both the Iranian regime and Hezbollah. Conversely, Lebanon’s March 14 democracy campaign and the Iranian Green Movement would be emboldened by the overthrow. Since March, 1,400 demonstrators have been killed by the Syrian security forces. Assad says his people love him and promises change but the reality is bullets in the backs of women mourning their sons.

The Assads have, successfully, put down dissent before. In Hama, upwards of 10,000 people were massacred on Daddy Assad’s orders in 1982, many times more than infamously died in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps the same year.

Following in his father’s footsteps, the current Assad deployed his air force against the Kurdish minority in 2004. Scores were killed and thousands were arrested and tortured. Nevertheless, somehow Assad – like the younger Gaddafi — has managed to create an image for himself as a good guy in bad guy’s clothing. He behaves like another Gaddafi but Hillary Clinton calls him “a reformer”.

The fear is, of course, that if Assad went, the Muslim Brotherhood would take over. But in the Syrian case, unlike Egypt’s, is that necessarily a step backwards? It’s tempting to think it would be a good thing if Assad were allowed to cling precariously to power. But history suggests dictators like Assad become externally aggressive in response as they try to earn legitimacy in their citizens’ eyes. Right now, compelled to devote his energies to staying in power, Assad has little time to stir up fires elsewhere. But for how long?

The more immediate question is, why is the MV Saoirse and its assorted passengers heading for Gaza and not the Syrian coast? Surely, if anyone could use some solidarity right now, it is the Syrian opposition forces who are being murdered on a daily basis?

Yes, Israel is maintaining a sea blockade to prevent the smuggling of Iranian weaponry into Gaza. But can we really blame them? Ireland has special reason to understand the need to prevent the entry of weapons by sea for terrorist purposes, having had the experience of the IRA’s attempts to import arms and explosives on ships from Libya in 1973 (the Claudia) and 1987 (the Eksund), and — with Martin Ferris’ help — on the Marita Ann from the US in 1984.

As the deputy director of the Red Cross in Gaza stated in April this year: “There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza.” But there most certainly is a humanitarian crisis in Syria. The Gazan economy is clipping along and tonnes of consumer goods and food arrive daily. For sure, life is probably not very pleasant there by our standards but the oppression comes from the ruling Hamas regime, not Israel which pulled out every last settler and soldier years ago.

So how about it, Fintan Lane, Barry Andrews, Sinn Féin, and your far-left buddies? Why not divert a couple of hundred miles north to Latakia where President Assad is mowing down his own people because they dare to demand dignity and democracy? Surely, there is no contest in terms of suffering?

Is it because if you dare to dock in Syria, shouting slogans supporting the oppressed and generally winding up the Syrian Navy you know you won’t be dealing with a regime that abides by international norms?

Is it because, even if you are non-violent — unlike those on the Mavi Marmara last year — you might still get your heads cracked? Is it because you’re scared? Or do you just have a problem with a Jewish state in the Middle East?

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