George Santayana presciently said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The only difference between the Afghan jihad back in the ‘80s, that spawned the Islamic jihadists like the Taliban and al Qaeda for the first time in history, and the Libyan and Syrian civil wars, 2011-onward, is that the Afghan jihad was an overt jihad: back then the Western political establishments and their mouthpiece, the mainstream media, used to openly brag that the CIA provides all those AK-47s, RPGs and stingers to the Pakistani intelligence agencies, which then distributes those deadly weapons among the Afghan mujahideen (freedom fighters) to combat the Soviet troops in Afghanistan.
After the 9/11 tragedy, however, the Western political establishments and corporate media have become a lot more circumspect, therefore, this time around, they have waged covert jihads against the Arab-nationalist Gaddafi regime in Libya and the anti-Zionist Assad regime in Syria, in which the Islamic jihadists (aka terrorists) have been sold as “moderate rebels,” with secular and nationalist ambitions, to the Western audience.
Since the regime change objective in those hapless countries went against the mainstream narrative of ostensibly fighting a war against terror, therefore, the Western political establishments and the mainstream media are now trying to muddle the reality by offering color-coded schemes to identify myriads of militant and terrorist outfits that are operating in those countries: such as, the red militants of the Islamic State, which the Western powers want to eliminate; the yellow Islamic jihadists, like Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, with whom the Western powers can collaborate under desperate circumstances; and the green militants of the Free Syria Army (FSA) and a few other inconsequential outfits, which together comprise the so-called “moderate” Syrian opposition.
It’s an incontrovertible fact that more than 90% of militants that are operating in Syria are either the Islamic jihadists or the armed tribesmen, and less than 10% are those who have defected from the Syrian army or otherwise have secular and nationalist goals.
As far as the infinitesimally small secular and liberal elite of the developing countries is concerned, such privileged classes can’t even cook breakfasts for themselves if their servants are on a holiday and the corporate media had us believing that the majority of the Syrian militants are “moderate rebels” who constitute the vanguard of the Syrian opposition against the Syrian regime in a brutal civil war and who believe in the principles of democracy, rule of law and liberal values as their cherished goals?
In political science the devil always lies in the definitions of the terms that we employ. For instance: how do you define a terrorist or a militant? In order to understand this, we need to identify the core of a “militant,” that what essential feature distinguishes him from the rest? A militant is basically an armed and violent individual who carries out subversive acts against the state.
That being understood, we now need to examine the concept of “violence.” Is it violence per se that is wrong, or does some kind of justifiable violence exists? I take the view, on empirical grounds, that all kinds of violence are essentially wrong; because the goals for which such violence is often employed are seldom right and elusive at best. Though democracy and liberal ideals are cherished goals but such goals can only be accomplished through peaceful means; expecting from the armed and violent thugs to bring about democratic reform is incredibly preposterous.
The Western mainstream media and its credulous neoliberal constituents, however, take a different view. According to them, there are two kinds of violence: justifiable and unjustifiable. When a militant resorts to violence for secular and nationalist goals, such as “bringing democracy” to Libya and Syria, the blindfolded liberal interventionists enthusiastically exhort such form of violence; however, if such militants later turn out to be Islamic jihadists, like the Misrata militia in Libya or the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front in Syria, the gullible neoliberals, who have been duped by the mainstream narrative, promptly make a volte-face and label them as “terrorists.”
Notwithstanding, on the subject of the supposed “powerlessness” of the US in the global affairs, the Western think tanks and the corporate media’s spin-doctors generally claim that Pakistan deceived the US in Afghanistan by providing clandestine support to the Taliban and the Haqqani network; Turkey hoodwinked the US in Syria by using the war against the Islamic State as a pretext for cracking down on Kurds; Saudi Arabia and UAE betrayed the US in Yemen by mounting airstrikes against the Houthis and Saleh’s loyalists; and once again Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt went against the “ostensible” policy of the US in Libya by conducting airstrikes against the Tripoli-based government, even though Khalifa Haftar, the military commander of the armed forces in eastern Libya, lived next door to the CIA’s headquarter in Langley, Virginia, for more than two decades.
If the US policymakers are so powerless and naïve then how come they still control the global economic order? This perennial whining attitude of the Western corporate media, that such and such regional actors betrayed them otherwise they were on the top of their game, is actually a clever stratagem that has been deliberately designed by the spin-doctors to cast the Western powers in a positive light and to demonize the adversaries, even if the latter are their tactical allies in some of the regional conflicts.
Fighting wars through proxies allows the international power brokers the luxury of taking the plea of “plausible deniability” in their defense and at the same time they can shift all the blame for wrongdoing on the minor regional players.
Regardless, back in the ‘80s, the Afghan so-called “freedom fighters” did not spring up spontaneously out of nowhere, some powers funded, trained, armed and internationally legitimized those militants; how else could such ragtag militants had beaten back the super power of its time?
Then in 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in Libya, those same powers once again financed, trained, armed and internationally legitimized the Libyan militants by calling them pro-democracy, “armed” activists against the supposedly “brutal and tyrannical” rule of Gaddafi regime.
Similarly, in Syria, those very same powers once again had the audacity to fund, train, arm and internationally legitimize the Syrian militants; how else could such peaceful and democratic protests have mutated into a full-blown armed insurrection?
And even if those protests did mutate into an armed rebellion, left to their own resources, the best such civilian protestors could have mustered was to get a few pistols, shotguns and rifles; where did they get all those machine gun-mounted pick-up trucks, rocket-propelled grenades and the US-made TOW antitank missiles?
You don’t have to be a military strategist to understand a simple fact that unarmed civilian population, and even the ragtag militant outfits, lack the wherewithal to fight against the organized and professional armed forces of a country that are equipped with artillery, armored vehicles, air force and navy.
Leaving the funding, training and arming aspects of the insurgencies aside, but especially pertaining to conferring international legitimacy to an armed insurgency, like the Afghan so-called “freedom struggle” of the Cold War, or the supposedly “moderate and democratic” Libyan and Syrian insurgencies of today, it is simply beyond the power of minor regional players and their nascent media, which has a geographically and linguistically limited audience, to cast such heavily armed and brutal insurrections in a positive light in order to internationally legitimize them; only the Western mainstream media, that has a global audience and which serves as the mouthpiece of the Western political establishments, has perfected this game of legitimizing the absurd and selling the Satans as saviors.
Notwithstanding, for the whole of the last five years of the Syrian proxy war, the focal point of the Western policy has been that “Assad must go!” But what difference would it make to the lives of the ordinary Syrians even if the regime is replaced now when the civil war has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, created millions of refugees, displaced half of the population and reduced the whole country of 22 million people to rubble? I do concede that Libya and Syria were not democratic states under Gaddafi and Assad, respectively; however, both of those countries were at least functioning states.
Gaddafi was ousted from power in September 2011; five years later, Tripoli is ruled by the Misrata militia, Benghazi is under the control of Khalifa Haftar, who is nothing more than the stooge of Egypt and UAE, and the heavily armed militants are having a field day all over Libya. It will now take decades, not years, to restore even a semblance of stability in Libya and Syria; remember that the proxy war in Afghanistan was originally fought in the ‘80s and today, 35 years later, Afghanistan is still in the midst of perpetual anarchy, lawlessness and an unrelenting Taliban insurgency.
If we were to draw parallels between the Soviet-Afghan jihad of the ‘80s and the Syrian civil war of today, the Western powers used the training camps located in the Af-Pak border regions to train and arm the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan with the help of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies.
Similarly, the training camps located in the border regions of Turkey and Jordan are being used to provide training and arms to the Syrian militants in order to battle the Syrian regime with the support of Turkish, Jordanian and Saudi intelligence agencies.
During the Afghan jihad, it is a known historical fact, that the bulk of the so-called “freedom fighters” was comprised of Pashtun Islamic jihadists, such as the factions of Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf and scores of others, some of whom later coalesced together to form the Taliban movement.
Similarly, in Syria, the bulk of the so-called “moderate opposition” is comprised of Islamic jihadists, like the Islamic State, al-Nusra Front, Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham and myriads of other militant groups, including a small portion of defected Syrian soldiers who go by the name of the Free Syria Army (FSA.)
Moreover, apart from Pashtun Islamic jihadists, the various factions of the Northern Alliance of Tajiks and Uzbeks constituted the relatively “moderate” segment of the Afghan rebellion, though those “moderate” warlords, like Ahmad Shah Massoud and Abul Rashid Dostum, were more ethnic and tribal in their character than secular or nationalist, as such.
Similarly, the Kurds of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces can be compared with the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan. The socialist PYD/YPG Kurds of Syria, however, had been allied with the Shi’a regime against the Sunni Arab jihadists for the first three years of the Syrian civil war, i.e. from August 2011 to August 2014.
At the behest of the American stooge in Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, the Syrian Kurds have switched sides in the last couple of years after the United States’ policy reversal and declaration of war against one faction of the Syrian opposition, the Islamic State, when the latter overstepped its mandate in Syria and overran Mosul and Anbar in Iraq in June 2014.
It’s very unfortunate that the haughty and myopic politicians and diplomats do not learn any lessons from history, otherwise all the telltale signs are there that Syria has become the Afghanistan of the Middle East and its repercussions on the stability of the energy-rich region and the security threat that the Syrian militants pose to the rest of the world will have far reaching consequences for many decades to come.
Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitics’ analyst who has a particular interest in the politics of Af-Pak and MENA regions, energy politics and Petroimperialism.