During the early years of the Lebanese Civil War in the late 1970s, Syria, with the help of it’s Arab neighbors, had formed a common front called the Lebanese National Movement (LNM),which led the fight against Israel and US-backed forces, such as the Christian Lebanese Front, the Israel-sponsored South Lebanon Army, the Christian Tigers Militia and the Christian Marada Brigade. Being a Syrian proxy and given Syria’s long-standing friendship with the USSR, the LNM was by default an ally of the Soviet Union.
Those days, LNM used to do business with a virulent outfit known as the Islamic Liberation Organization (ILO) that had a rabidly radical Islamic philosophy and regarded the atheist Soviet regime as apostates, to be kept at an arm’s length, if not seen as an outright enemy altogether. The ILO and the LNM therefore, shared an itchy friendship.
The story goes that one late night in October 1985, an over-zealous ILO patrol began tailing four male Caucasians they had seen walking in what they perceived as a suspicious manner, near the Soviet Embassy in Beirut. Mistaking them for Mossad operatives, the ILO gunmen took the four men hostage. This was as per their interpretation of their faith, Islam, which ordained that kidnap for ransom, as an alternative to beheading, was okay.
It didn’t take long for the guerrillas to realize that they had made a grievous error. In their hot-headed zeal, they had taken four Russian diplomats who had been walking back to the embassy after a meeting with some LNM commanders. The LNM, through Syria, apologized profusely to the USSR, even offering up the perpetrators to the Russians. The ILO refused to give them up. Meanwhile one of the hostages was killed, though the ILO protested that the man had tried to overpower and kill one of the captors and it had been self-defense.
The Russians didn’t even bother to consider the LNM offer. No dice, no deals. Maybe they understood the ethos of the middle-east better than anyone else, even back then. They were looking at a culture that looks at deals as a sign of weakness.
Retribution was swift. Before the week was out, an MI-24 Hind settled briefly in a deserted football field late at night and disgorged a team of six Spetsnaz Group Alpha commandos. A Datsun pick-up emerged out of the darkness and transported the six heavily armed men to a six-storied apartment block that was said to house the families of senior commanders of the ILO and the LNM.
They took everything that moved inside that building hostage and began killing and dismembering them one at a time and sending the body parts to the dens of the LNM and the ILO. The warning was clear – more body parts were on the way, unless the remaining hostages were released immediately.
The blunt show of force worked and the remaining hostages were set free. For the next twenty years, not a single Soviet or Russian citizen was touched, until the 2006 abduction and murder of four Russian embassy staff in Iraq. A pro-Chechen Al Qaida affiliate called the Mujahedeen Shura Council, claimed responsibility. On that occasion, Vladimir Putin ordered the perps found and liquidated, his order to be carried out ‘regardless of the time and expense involved’. Of course they were found and they were excruciatingly put to death, within a span of six months.
The Russia today isn’t much different from the Soviets of the 1970s. While every other nation, including Israel, have negotiated with terrorists, exchanged prisoners with terrorists and insurgents, Russia is the only one which has never done a deal. It is ruled, after all, by a dictator who is essentially old-school KGB. The Russian ethos is textbook blunt-force bludgeon. Ask any Russian and he’ll tell you, ‘Democracy schmemocracy – it’s crap. I love my Vladimir and I don’t care if I’m not completely free. When someone fucks with us, I know I can count on Volodya to waste him.’
That blunt-force bludgeon is out once again – this time to shore up the defenses of a friend – Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Unlike the west, Russia doesn’t believe in lip service to friends. I have seen that first-hand at the start of hostilities in the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence, when the Soviets stood by India and threatened to step in if the US 7th Fleet (that was chugging up the Bay of Bengal, looking to provide West Pakistan with military support) didn’t back off.
In the end, however, Russia will lose. It will regress and acquire a Soviet mindset under Putin. It will not lose because of that and also not because it has backed the wrong regime. Why, America developed backing the wrong regime into an art form.
Russia will lose because it will stop rewarding merit. The Soviet Cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova was asked in 2011 interview with the Der Spiegel, what were the factors that influenced the Soviet High Command’s choice of her as the first space woman.
“It definitely was not only merit,” she said, to the surprise of the interviewer,” Yes, I was a parachutist and pilot but so were the other women who applied. It was because my father was seen as a member of the ‘proletariat’ and was also a war-hero who gave his life in the Finnish Winter War of 1940.”
(NASA couldn’t care less who Neil Armstrong’s father was.)
How did all this come to pass?
The Syria we used to know was the same Syria that the west did business with – to the extent of sending detainees for rendition there (re: Canadian citizen, Maher Arar). It was the same Syria that American tourists thronged to visit and take in the sights of Palmyra in hordes, to gape at the sheer beauty of the ancient archaeological treasures that Syria was famous for. They didn’t bother to see ordinary Syrians as hapless, persecuted people then. Because they weren’t hapless, persecuted people. There was peace on the streets of Damascus and ordinary Syrians had it just as good or just as bad as any other ordinary folks anywhere in the world.
Sure, there have been dictators and strongmen and power-hungry politicians and sure, Assad is a dictator. Show me one single political leader anywhere in the world who hasn’t let his people down in the most hideously spectacular fashion. You won’t be able to. Looking at the deceit and treachery and the gaping chasm between the haves and the have-nots in the so-called ‘democracies’ of the world, why would I want to believe that they are in any way better? No one saw Syria any differently than hundreds of other nations strewn all across the world.
All that changed one morning in January 2011, on a crowded thoroughfare in a small Tunisian town on the Mediterranean coast, called Ben Arous. Fruit vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, unable to stand the constant harassment and demands for bribes from municipal officials anymore, poured gasoline all over himself and lit a match in full public view. He died shortly after.
Prior to the Bouazizi immolation, Bashar al-Assad had been a poster boy Arab, with his boyish charm and a King’s College(London)-educated Syrian British socialite wife. Working hand-in-glove with the west, he tortured America’s prisoners in the ‘Global War on Terror’, doing America’s dirty work. In an Islamic world saturated with bigotry and harsh treatment of women, Assad’s Syria stood out as a secular Arab state.
Then Bouazizi incident happened and snowballed into the Arab Spring and almost overnight, Bashar al-Assad became this murderous tyrant who didn’t conform to the west’s ideals of democracy and just had to go.
The Syrian civil war is entering it’s fifth year and has acquired a multi-faceted dimension that Tom Clancy would have loved to weave in as the backdrop to his next blockbuster, had he been alive.
The US and it’s allies are continuing to offer token piecemeal support to so-called ‘moderate’ rebel groups that are fighting against Assad and the ISIS. Perpetual paranoiac, Israel, is watching bewildered and apprehensive. It has grounds to be. The shit is hitting the ceiling just outside the wicket gate.
Meanwhile, Russia and Iran in the east and the Hezbollah in the west have formed a triad, intent upon shoring up the Assad regime. The alliances are simple to understand. Iran and the Hezbollah are Shiite, like Assad’s minority government and Russia sees Syria as it’s only true ally on the Mediterranean coast.
As of now, all the players swear to be on the same side in the war against the ISIS. Warplanes from Syria, Russia, Turkey, France and the US are buzzing around the skies over a tiny box-like space that is a little more than an hour’s flying time, end to end, and the world is holding it’s breath, waiting for the first inadvertent air-to-air missile to strike or for the first Su-30 to collide in mid-air with an F-16.
Commentators are beginning to wonder whether Syria – not Crimea, not the Senkaku Islands and not the Arctic – will be the matchstick that will ignite the next world war.
(to be continued…)