Putin’s policy on Syria is right

Is it really in the interests of Israel, or of the West, that the Syrian civil war should result in the departure from Damascus of President (and ophthalmologist extraordinary) Bashar al-Assad?

A great number of civilians are being killed, many by Assad's quivering regime, but some at the hands of the ill-disciplined, so-called "Free Syria Army". Both sides are guilty of war crimes. But let's get all this into perspective. Syria - like Iraq - is an artificial creation, a forcing together of tribes and religious groups that have always loathed each other.

The Assad regime represents the interests of the Alawite minority. Alawites are regarded by mainstream Muslims in general and Syria's Sunni majority in particular as adherents of an heretical sect - hardly Muslims at all. This feeling - naturally - is mutual. Syria's important Christian minority, on the basis that "my enemy's enemy is my friend", allies itself with the Alawites; some self-exiled Syrian Christians recently told me, with commendable frankness, that they feared for the future of Syrian Christianity should Assad be swept from power.

Then there are the Kurds. We haven't heard much about the Kurds in relation to the present conflict but certainly very few Kurds are enrolling in the army of "Free Syria".

After Assad there can only be endless bloodshed

There is a myopic and tragic mind-set in the West that sees Assad as an unpopular and undemocratic dictator and the forces of "Free Syria" as beacons of enlightenment. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Look at Egypt, where another apparently unpopular and undemocratic dictator, Hosni Mubarak, has been deposed and an apparently democratic and popular Islamist elected in his stead. The net result to date is that the relatively (I stress "relatively") liberal Mubarak regime - which for instance encouraged at least a modicum of tolerance for minority groups such as the Christian Copts and which embraced at least a modicum of education for women - has given way to an increasingly unpleasant and intolerant Islamist populism.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian economy has collapsed and the formerly secure internationally recognised border with Israel has given way to a murderous and lawless frontier reminiscent of the American Wild West.

I don't need to be reminded that Assad is no friend to Israel. He isn't. And he's a raving antisemite to boot. But, realising from the moment he succeeded his father as president of the Syrian state that the key to a stable Syria was - after all - stability, it was never going to be in his interest to provoke a war with his Jewish neighbours. Sabre rattling: you bet. Applause at the efforts of the semi-autonomous Hizbollah regime in Lebanon to launch raiding-parties against Israel: no question. But war? An all-out war with Israel? Certainly not.

There is, therefore, a certain logic to the position taken by Russia in relation to the present crisis. There was never going to be any support from Moscow (or Beijing) for a UN-sanctioned policy of military intervention and regime-change in Syria, as we witnessed in Libya. But Mr Putin is right. After Assad there can only be le déluge: seemingly endless bloodshed and a dangerous regional volatility that can only benefit Iran.

How (you may ask) are we to account for Tehran's extrovert and vocal support for the present government in Damascus? The ruling classes in Iran are Shi'ite Muslims. All other things being equal, therefore, the writ of Tehran would simply not run in Damascus. But, in a grand gesture and as part of their plan to extend influence to the shores of the Mediterranean, the mad Ayatollahs have decided that Assad is the lesser of two evils - the greater being a populist Sunni-directed "revolution" that would have no truck whatever with a client of a Shi-ite state.

It must also be remembered that in Shia terms the Alawites are not so much heretics as lapsed Shi'ites - semi-kosher, so to speak.

From Israel's perspective, by far the greatest danger emanating from the present crisis in Syria is that Assad's stockpile of chemical and biological weapons would (God forbid) fall into the hands of anti-Assad militias. So it is certainly not in Israel's interest that Assad should be deposed. Let's hope that Putin is talking to Netanyahu, and making this point as forcefully as he can.

Last updated: 11:45am, August 21 2012