Patrick Cockburn, a veteran Middle East correspondent for respected media, tells us that the Syrian conflict is 'the end of Sykes-Picot', a secret 1916 agreement between England and France that divided the region into spheres of influence. He also warns, perhaps on the basis of his travels exclusively through regime-held areas, of a terrible quagmire looming.
Cockburn is one of many who subtly - and therefore all the more effectively - back Assad. You can tell this partly by his carefully chosen style of understatement. When, for instance, he speaks of Assad 'savagely repressing demonstrations', he's using a phrase applied last year to demonstrations in Spain, in which 'dozens' were injured. You'd never know that Assad used not only automatic weapons but also heavy artillery on peaceful demonstrations, injuring thousands and killing hundreds - perhaps the lucky ones, for they were not among those taken and tortured to death.
Cockburn knows he can't depend on understatement to soft-pedal Assad, so he offers up what aspires to be an impressive version of "this is a great big mess". Of course the underlying message is that the West ought to stay out of the great big mess, and it will be a disastrous to arm the rebels. This disingenuous pessimism is made plausible and respectable by standard techniques flaunting purported authority and expertise.
Two well-worn analyst ploys, ubiquitous in op-eds on Syria, are in evidence here.
First, there's the pretentious arm-wave towards history.
It's nice to show you know about Sykes-Picot, but what's the point? As if Sykes-Picot had worked! As if someone can draw a map and said "there! if only we've had these borders, all would have been peace and harmony!" Cockburn uses the Sykes-Picot reference to impress us. The cognoscenti are worried. Apparently that's because Kurdish forces are peacefully withdrawing from Turkey; Iraq's decades-old conflicts proceed as usual; and the Syrian 'violence is spilling' into Turkey. But even the violence in Turkey is minimal and shows not the slightest sign of intensifying. As for Sykes-Picot, it's ended' numerous times, including 1921 (Anatolia), 1943 (Lebanon), 1945 (Syria), and 1948 (Palestine).
Second, there's the deliberately lazy misuse of 'proxy'.
A proxy isn't just anyone who acts in your interest; it's some person or device or institution whose entire function in a particular transaction is act as you would act. That's why we say that proxies are 'authorized', which means the proxy's acts are to be taken as your own. Since proxies exist only to act for another, proxy wars would cease as soon as the authorizers stopped their meddling. The insinuation is that the Syrian revolution is a mere artefact of others' agendas, devoid of any independent legitimacy.
It doesn't take much to see through the claim that the rebels are Western or Gulf State proxies. Not only do they fail to act as some authorizer would act; not only do they typically fail to act in some authorizer's interest; they sometimes act contrary to those interests. Every day, we hear how the rebels can't be relied on to carry out any coherent agenda, let alone be trusted with advanced weapons. Support has been consistently limited and grudging. The extreme Islamists are thought too extreme; the moderates, neither willing nor able to stand up to them. No one dares depict a post-Assad future, except at times to pant about sectarian massacres, Al Qaeda, and secularists who don't seem to love America or Israel enough. Do Cockburn and his ilk really think that if the Syrian rebels were genuine proxies of wealthy, powerful nations, they would still be throwing Molotov cocktails, or using trebuchets and catapults to deliver gas canister bombs? But the question presupposes that these 'experts' deign to follow actual events on the ground in Syria. Nothing supports such an assumption.
For that matter, not even Assad in an Iranian proxy. The Iranians are cruel and calculating, but they are not idiots. They don't go in for sectarian massacres and they don't delight in shabiha gangs running amok on steroids and booze, flaunting their syrupy Assad tattoos. Hizbollah, disciplined and judicious, is more Iran's idea of a proxy.
In other words the 'proxy' diagnosis is nothing but a sort of snobbery, an unwillingness to believe that any but secular, well-dressed and well-behaved Arabs can actually think and act on their own behalf. Yet to many the diagnosis passes as the inside story.
And what's left if the Syrian revolutionaries are not proxies in any strict sense of the word? Presumably that governments support the opposition because they hope supporting them is in their nations' interests. So they support the opposition out of self-interest, and despite the fact that the rebels, not being proxies, cannot be depended on to do as they're told. Is this even worth mentioning? No wonder analysts so love to misuse 'proxy'.
As for "The quagmire is turning out to be even deeper and more dangerous than it was in Iraq." - it's a real winner.
How is a 'quagmire' sucking in zero Western troops and pocket change deeper than one which sucked in hundreds of thousands of troops (counting rotations) and trillions of dollars? How on earth is it proving to be more dangerous, given it hasn't hurt a single hair on an a single Western soldier's head? As for the rest of the area, it's a lark for Israel, not at all dangerous for Jordan and Turkey, and more of the same for Iraq, where Shia-Sunni violence never stopped. As for Lebanon, since the Christians and Druze so far are absolutely out of the picture, there's real danger, but hardly anything like an Iraqi-level conflagration.
The Syria conflict may indeed ignite the whole region. China may invade Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam. Or maybe Syria and Lebanon are about to get past violent repression and enter into a brighter future. Anything is possible, but invoking mere possibilities shouldn't pass for analysis.
Cockburn's eagerness to find spectres drives him into incoherence. Consider the following :
Five distinct conflicts have become tangled together in Syria: a popular uprising against a dictatorship which is also a sectarian battle between Sunnis and the Alawite sect; a regional struggle between Shia and Sunni which is also a decades-old conflict between an Iranian-led grouping and Iran’s traditional enemies, notably the US and Saudi Arabia. Finally, at another level, there is a reborn Cold War confrontation: Russia and China v. the West.
Not for Cockburn the simple version, two sides with some outside support fighting one war in one country. He's wants to scare us off. But did you count? There are supposed to be five distinct conflicts. But the first 'is also' the second, and the third 'is also' the fourth. The conflicts are not merely 'tangled together'. They are, that is, are identical, with one another, not 'distinct'. That makes three 'conflicts', not five. As for 'sectarian battle', Cockburn might have noted that, despite politically motivated fatwas issued by some of their clerics, Shias regard Alawites at best as Muslim heretics and certainly not as Shia. This indicates that Hezbollah and Iran's support of Assad is anything but 'sectarian', it has to do with securing supply routes to Lebanon. But the sectarian label is, of course, a good way to belittle the Syrian revolution, especially if you have an almost sectarian affection for Assad's secularist government.
Cockburn has nothing here, so he conjures up a 'reborn Cold War confrontation'. What's that supposed to mean? Yes, there could be a typical 'Cold War confrontation', that is, one where no one actually gets hurt. But that wouldn't make for a more dangerous quagmire, so presumably we're meant to contemplate something much worse. There are also dark references to a conflict between Iran and the US and the Gulf States. These conveniently ignore the fact that Iran has literally never attacked anybody, and even the most heavy-handed Western interference in Syria wouldn't require an attack on Iran. Neither Russia nor China nor the US have anything remotely like vital interests or even ideological shibboleths entrenched in Syria. Is Cockburn hinting these powers might get into a Korean-level fight, a shooting war over Assad? Is this a joke?
Cockburn neither reasons nor profits from his knowledge and experience. From whatever motives - dislike of Islamists, annoyance at failure to predict events, emotional attachment to 'anti-imperialism'- he serves up evidence-free prejudice in fancy dress.