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Are the Deaths of Two Westerners Worth More Than Thousands of Syrians?

09/10/2014 05:48 EDT | Updated 11/10/2014 05:59 EST

It is a typical summer flick, but it offers a great lesson for geopolitics. Hercules, released earlier in the summer, shows how the son of Zeus fights against tyrants only to realize later that he was tricked into fighting against the good guys.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper must also feel very Herculean. He and other Western leaders supported the Syrian rebels against President Bashar Al-Assad. The same rebels either amalgamated with, or were overpowered by, the al-Qaeda militants who have founded the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a consortium of fanatic mercenaries whose control extend from Syria to the Sunni-majority parts of Iraq.

Compared to these extremists, who are massacring Shias in Iraq and beheading American journalists, Bashar Al-Asad may look like a saint. The West and the wealthy Arab states jumped into bed with the Syrian rebels. It took Al-Qaeda fewer than two years to take over the rebels in Syria and march towards Baghdad while it simultaneously threatens the Western countries. From Osama Bin Laden to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (the self-proclaimed caliph and the head of the ISIL), the long list of western supported turncoats suggests that the West is yet to learn from its past mistakes of supporting militants who turn against the West's interests.

It became obvious as early as in 2012 that the Western-backed and Arab-sponsored rebellion in Syria served as a rallying cry for the Al-Qaeda militants. The West supported the Free Syrian Army to fight against the Bashar government. Yet, the Al-Qaeda proxies in Syria, primarily the al-Nusra Front, wrestled control from the Syrian rebels. Later, the Syrian al-Nusra Front reluctantly ceded control to ISIL, which has extended its reach from Syria to Iraq.

The Western interest in dismantling the Syrian regime was motivated by two factors. First, the Syrian regime had proven to be a sustained source of discomfort for Israel. Containing Syria meant additional operational space for Israel. The second factor had to do with the Arab regimes' interest in containing Iran's rising influence in the region.

From Iran to Iraq to Syria to Lebanon emerged a Shiite crescent in the heart of the Arab world, which through the centuries has been dominated by the Sunni Islam. This alarmed the Saudis, Kuwaitis, Qataris, and Jordanians, who desperately searched for excuses to break the chain of Shiite influence in the Arab heartland. Syria proved an easy target for the reason that the Bashar regime in Syria belongs to the minority Alawite sect that has been ruling over the majority Sunnis. The petro dollars, which once helped bring the mighty Soviets down, started to pour into the coffers of Syrian rebels who mounted a formidable challenge to the Bashar regime.

The Western governments either failed to appreciate, or were oblivious to, the sectarian schisms in Islam that underlined the resistance against the Bashar regime. Already in Iraq, the Al-Qaeda affiliated groups were active in the Sunni majority regions against the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. At the same time, the Al-Qaeda leadership was in flux. The younger and more ruthless commanders were jostling for control and pushing the veterans out. In Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi started a guerilla war against the Iraqi Shiites. His successors, the latest being Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, have been equally motivated by sectarian hatred. Al-Baghdadi has proclaimed himself to be the caliph and set up his control in the Sunni-majority areas in Iraq and Syria.

The Syrian conflict has caused the death of over 100,000 Syrians. The conflict even saw the use of chemical weapons against civilians. Millions of Syrians have been displaced internally and externally. This, however, did not concern the Western countries. Apart from lukewarm concerns expressed against the rise of Al-Qaeda's influence in the conflict, the plight of Syrians in the prolonged conflict did not force the Western countries or the Arab sponsors reconsider their stance. Even when ISIL marched into Iraq, captured several towns and dams, and slaughtered hundreds of captured Iraqi Shiite soldiers, the West did not reconsider its support for the Syrian rebels who had, albeit unwittingly, helped empower Al-Qaeda inspired extremists in the region.

This however changed when ISIL beheaded two Western journalists. The gruesome videos of their beheadings by ISIL militants suddenly rung alarm bells in Washington, DC, Ottawa and other European capitals. It was sadly not the death of thousands of Syrians or the plight of millions of displaced Syrians, but the unfortunate murder of two Westerners that made the West reconsider its stance in the region.

That the mighty Hercules could be tricked into fighting for the wrong side should serve as a reminder to the Western leaders to know their history and geography before they engineer coups and arm rebels. It is not the first time, and is unlikely to be the last, that the monsters created with the Western help would return to haunt them later.

A version of this blog appeared earlier in www.Dawn.com.

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