The calm eye of an expanding storm
Amman: Jordan is as calm as the eye of a surrounding storm. As residents smoke shisham in cafes, and tourists trot out complaints without which no holiday is complete, you would never guess that an epochal civil war is devastating Syria, an hour’s smooth drive from Amman.
On the map, Jordan is a geopolitical fortress, still secure despite declared and undeclared conflict on every side. To its east is Iraq, the land of ceaseless violence ever since George Bush and his dark conservatives decided to destroy Al Qaeda in a land where it had never existed, through a war that Washington and London knew how to begin, but no one knows how to end. To Jordan’s west is Israel, where war has become a state of mind; where every citizen is on permanent alert; and history wanders through limbo, searching for a settlement that may or may not bring peace. To its south is Saudi Arabia, struggling with itself, unable to come to terms with the display of a woman’s face, struggling to find some way out of a time warp. Jeans flourish in Amman, whether worn by men or women, and the only veil you might see is probably worn by a tourist. To Jordan’s northwest lies Lebanon, which has given a new meaning to that old term: permanent war.
Conversation, inevitably, drips with the acid dew in the environment. Syria, claims one voice, is the latest victim of the oldest faultline in modern history: oil and gas. This must be at the very least a partial truth. No one was interested in West Asia’s vast deserts before Europe’s colonists began to sniff oil in remote spots like Masjid-e-Suleimania, and brought it home to Britain and France at cottage cheese prices to lubricate their navies and their commerce. I suggest that Army-based secular autocrats like the Assad family have also passed their sell-by date, but that invites a cynic’s shrug in a region where dictators are more familiar than democrats. It does not quite measure up against the fact that the oil and gas discovered in Syria, Lebanon and Israel could soon make them very rich indeed.
You cannot argue with some facts. Iraq’s oil tankers do not seem to face a violence problem. Nothing else may function in Libya but its oil industry is up and about. Did you say there were international sanctions against Iran? Tell that to the birds, or at least to the birds who will listen. Its oil flows into Iraq where it becomes, with the scribble of pen on invoice paper, Iraqi oil.
In yet another instance of unintended consequences, sanctions are helping Iran to develop the potential it has, much in the way that a protected economy enabled Indian industrialists to manufacture products that India could not import. Iran has ten automobile factories now. Sanctions do punish; one is not being romantic about them. But they can also prevent you from bloating on foreign fast food, or teach you to make your own soap instead of becoming addicted to multinationals. Local industry can co-exist with multinationals as equals, not as vendors for their products.
Israel is militarily strong enough to protect and exploit its natural resources. Other nations are not. There is a lot of hidden depth to the games afoot in Syria, including the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict, tinged with ideological conservatism, that has become a sub-text of the region. These are games played with real weapons.
There has to be some reason beyond the urge to sell arms, or play geopolitics, for Russia to send sophisticated arsenals to Syria’s establishment, and for America to step in on the rebel side. This war has escalated with incremental intervention. The United Nations is not even pretending to show up. If Russia, and China from a discreet distance, cannot afford Assad’s defeat, then America too cannot afford the collapse of rebellion.
There are contradictions on both sides. Russia does not believe that the Assad family should be part of the long-term solution. And Washington understands that many rebels are extremists who will ravage Syria’s minorities and then turn their attention westwards if they ever come to power in Damascus.
When you think of minorities, include women. Some of the support for the rebels is coming from revanchist elements, whose stockpile of carbon cash keeps searching for ways to destroy a modern social order.
The ideal is not in formal dispute: Syria should have what it deserves, a secular democracy. This is the promise that made the Baathist party guardian of Syria’s destiny. Baathists veered away from democracy through an unsustainable alibi, and in the process have endangered the society they once nourished.
The present status quo is as unacceptable as the dangerous fringe in the alternative. But if war expands, it will blow out of control. Cease fire and talk, before there is no one left to talk to. There will be no calm left either.