Syria — the next Afghanistan?

Published: July 10, 2012
The writer is Islamabad bureau chief of Al Jazeera Arabic and author of Bin Laden Unmasked (2003)

The writer is Islamabad bureau chief of Al Jazeera Arabic and author of Bin Laden Unmasked (2003)

Russia should have learnt from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, where it paid a heavy price, both in human and material terms. What is happening now in Syria, however, suggests that it has learnt nothing. Moscow seems adamant on supporting — in effect imposing — a dictatorial and totalitarian regime on the Syrian people, which is ruling the country with an iron fist after the imposition of emergency in 1963. The emergency was lifted only recently but nothing has changed.

Bashar al-Assad’s regime has resorted to the use of heavy weapons against its own people and destroyed as much as 80 per cent of the city of Homs. Out of a population of three million, only 300,000 of the city’s inhabitants remain. So far, the regime’s brutal campaign has caused more than 18,500 fatalities, among them 1,400 children and 1,450 women. And the pillage and plunder is not limited to Homs but has spilt over in other cities and towns as well.

I am endeavouring here to draw an analogy between Afghanistan and Syria. In the beginning, Pakistan was a base for the Afghan Mujahideen and also hosted refugees from Afghanistan, much like Turkey is doing now in the case of Syria. Shelter, food and medical assistance is being provided in Turkey to several thousand Syrian refugees and defectors including officers and soldiers, who are fighting against the Assad regime.

Comparing the Syrian and Afghan situations, the Arab world in general and the Gulf countries in particular, took a very firm stand in favour of the US resolution on Syria, something that they did not do in the case of even Saddam Hussain, who was their arch-enemy. They have severed diplomatic ties with Assad and are clearly supporting the opposition which is a break from their long-standing conservative policy of minimal interference.

In the case of Afghanistan, in the 1980s, Islamists gathered their energies and capabilities to support the Afghan Mujahideen and Peshawar became the hub of their activities. Similarly Antakya on the Syrian border is nowadays playing the same role. Recently, in an international conference in Istanbul, hundreds of Muslim scholars, Arabs and non-Arabs, including Pakistanis, gathered to show solidarity with the Syrian people. Turkey’s Ministry of Religious Affairs took part as well and the minister himself spoke very clearly in favour of the revolution and committed his government’s help in the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power.

The West is also supporting the Syrian uprising but at a very slow pace and this will have a negative impact for the world at large. The UN is playing a role, but as usual, holding the stick from the middle. When it sent observers to monitor the ceasefire on the ground and to observe the six-point Kofi Annan peace plan, which was agreed upon by the UN, nothing materialised. To make matters worse, it failed to lay the responsibility on the regime for its killing of thousands of Syrian civilians.

This failure to hold the Assad regime at least responsible caused distrust among many Syrians of the UN’s ability to help them and put an end to their sufferings. Not perhaps coincidentally, the same mistake was made by the UN during the Afghan war and that in the end resulted in the Mujahideen taking over Kabul.

The Russian-Iranian coordination in the last days of the communist regime in Afghanistan, in order to secure the backing of Shia and Tajik groups in any future political dispensation, is now being repeated by Russia in Syria by providing military, political and financial support to the Assad regime.

We should also remember that when a political stalemate occurred in Afghanistan, the military option prevailed and it happened because of many unresolved issues.

Unfortunately, the same is happening today in Syria. In Afghanistan, when that happened and fighting broke out between various Mujahideen factions in the 1990s, the extremist Taliban emerged as the most powerful faction because every ideology needs a similar or stronger one to defeat it. This could also happen in Syria, if the world doesn’t make haste to handle the situation.

Furthermore, in Afghanistan, al Qaeda emerged and the same, too, could happen in Syria. And if it does, it may be on a larger scale because of its geo-political location and because of Israel sitting on its border.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (20)

  • zi.
    Jul 11, 2012 - 12:04AM

    very well said it sir but i have question why irans so called islamic govt allways support non sunni govts or groups thats strage things and why arab are so weak to solve there problems.


  • Ali Wali
    Jul 11, 2012 - 12:14AM

    Syria is first case of East vs West cold war in this century, China, Russia and Iran on one side US, Europe, Israel and Gulf monarchies on other. Also I do not think Syria will become another Afghanistan. On Turks, they were dreaming of New Ottoman Empire which back fired badly.Recommend

  • Pakistani Agnostic
    Jul 11, 2012 - 12:23AM

    i don’t think so. Syrians are beautiful people (unlike Sub-continent folks) and they really are not made of war material.


  • Ali Wali
    Jul 11, 2012 - 1:01AM

    It’s funny how Qatar and Saudia are funding and arming Syrian opposition and sending Alqaeda in Syria, do not they know their turn will be next. Turkey is just a teethless tiger, if it’s leaders do not play a constructive role in Syrian crisis, their own country will disintegrate.Recommend

  • BlackJack
    Jul 11, 2012 - 3:36AM

    Russia is unable to come to terms with its declining influence in the region, and its fear of Islamists (based on its tender underbelly) has always caused it to support despotic regimes – the present case is no different. I will agree that Turkey nurtures ambitions of playing a larger role in the Islamic world, much like Pakistan did (still does), and sees (correctly) a strong opportunity to influence a future Syrian dispensation. However, they are careful not to radicalize their population to the extent that Pakistan did during the Afghan war – no Turk extremists are being churned out in madrassas and sent across the border. Another distinction that needs to be drawn is on Syria vs Iraq; Syria is a Sunni majority country ruled by a secular Shia minority – Iraq was just the opposite; to some extent this is the reason that the Sunni states in the reason are less accepting of Assad’s brutality/ oppression than Saddam Hussein’s.


  • Parviz . Sani
    Jul 11, 2012 - 3:57AM

    Syrians are different race and to compare them with Afghans don’t make any sensible approach.
    The war is pro & anti American forces.In the end Syrian people will be the losers,like Afghans


  • mahakaalchakra
    Jul 11, 2012 - 4:22AM

    @Pakistani Agnostic:

    Don’t they all drink from the same source?


  • Babloo
    Jul 11, 2012 - 4:23AM

    No. Because Turkey is not Pakistan.


  • rashid khan
    Jul 11, 2012 - 5:45AM

    Come to the point… its not a war or struggle for democracy – that’s just the fig leaf- its an extension of the perpetual Shia – Sunni schism. In this instance, it is stirred by Saudi manifested in appearance of the majority Sunni opposing the power base constituting non Sunnis.
    Syria may’ve been ruled by despots but it still provided a more liberal and fresher environment than Saudi.
    Ever since the 1970s, the oil money has consistently been used under varying guises to upstage social orders not inline with a particular school of Islam, however, its just a matter of time before those who have been funding such upheavals will be be paying the price in kind in their own backyards – its a universal law.


  • Imran Con
    Jul 11, 2012 - 5:49AM

    The “west” just can’t get a break. Complain when they do put a stop to such things saying they’re trying to police the world and there’s some conspiracy to bring down Islam. Complain when they don’t fully involve themselves. Even if it doesn’t get said or even implied by them, that crap gets really old. They should have abandoned most Islamic countries a long time ago.


  • Ali Hassan
    Jul 11, 2012 - 9:28AM

    The main assumption taken here is to blindly trust the media machine which mainly comprises of the western countries and their stooges in the arab world. If you were to listen to the russian or the syrian news or even talk to syrian ppl you will realize the situation at hand is quite different. the numbers are blatantly exaggerated and the facts are twisted to turn the public vote in their favour. Please be assured that Bashar al Assad was not the like of dictators we usually have/had in the middle east. He is not a shiite but an Allawi, which as per most shias are deviants. Despite the various sects existing in Syria, we never heard of any massacre or attrocities by the rulers (which by the way are in minority). To me, Syria is just paying the price for being anti american or pro Iran/Russian. As usual the Saudies and the Qataries are forced by the west (or even threatened) to assist them from within the arab world, by supplying religious terrorists and weaponry.


  • Anon..
    Jul 11, 2012 - 11:14AM

    @Ali Hassan
    Please brush up your history. Hafez Assad Bashar’s father was a notorious dictator, and just like Bashar is massacring Syrians now so did his father brutally crush the uprising of Homs in 1980’s where 20,0000-35,000 people were estimated to have killed. The Assad regime’s brutality is well documented but maybe not well known because of the tight control of the media the assad regime has and the fact that for a long time the region was cut off to the outside world.
    Also yes I have also talked to Syrians in the past and they all talked about how the secret police is soo entrenched in their everyday surroundings, mosques neighbours schools etc that previous they were too afraid to voice their opinions publicly for fear of being tortured by the state police.
    But now the reality is obvious. How can the 7 percent Allawis rule over the 85 percent Sunnis, it was always an unsustainable formula and people no longer want to remain oppressed under this regime.


  • Wellwisher
    Jul 11, 2012 - 11:33AM

    At least Turkey is not as unscruplous as Pakistan, Turkey would not double time every one as Pakistan does. Turkey is certainly more trust worthy than Pakistan is and finally Turkey being the country it is, it would not allow Syria to slide into chaos as Pakistan as done to Afghanistan after all if it did so, then Turkey should be prepared to face the blowback concequences/punches as Pakistan is facing today.

  • Chandio
    Jul 11, 2012 - 12:28PM

    Your article draws a confused resemblance, Russia probably has learnt their lesson, interested in going in for details? check what their journalists are saying after deep down visits to Syria


  • Lord
    Jul 11, 2012 - 1:01PM

    What you will say about Iran’s support to Hammas are they not salafies why Iran is supporting them.No body can argue on the fact that palestanian muslims are the most oppressed. Where is arabs on that issue .Are they scared of israel.
    Lastly to all of you a message “An oppressed is an oppressed what ever there faith,caste and creed they belong.Doesnt matter what language they speak they should be sympathized .Accept shia are oppressed in Pakistan.If syrian regime is oppressing its sunni population or in any other part of the world is oppressed by shias they should also be sympathized.But you wont see this case much its mostly other way around.Let it be Indonesia , Malaysia, Pakistan , Afghanistan , Bahrain , Saudia etc. Sir, be with the oppressed be that oppressed is a non-believer to you. ” .Please dont discriminate on the basis of religion.


  • BS Detector
    Jul 11, 2012 - 1:38PM

    @rashid khan
    Are you an Assad spokesperson or are you just ignorant of the reality? Are you not aware of the 20,000 people that were massacared by Bashar’s father Hafez Assad in 1980’s in Homs? Can you point out any large massacres that have taken place in Evil Saudi Arabia?? Is this your idea of liberalism? The Assad regime was so notoriously brutal that the dictator of Algeria came to syria to learn lessons from Hafez on how to crush a similar uprising in Algeria. Also Iran has the same authoritarian strict conservative regime in place, so why are you only attacking Saudi? Saudi’s have had to counter Iranian influence, through their own support for sunni groups. Iran has in recent years played the proxy war extremely agressively, supporting Hezbollah in lebanon and dominating the Lebanese government, giving blind support to Bashar assad, giving support to Moqtada Sadr and the PM Maliki in Iraq. It is also been targeting Saudi diplomats in assassinations in Pakistan and Dhaka. The current syrian mess is Bashar Assad and Iran’s own doing and they are paying the price for it now


  • Ali Wali
    Jul 11, 2012 - 3:59PM

    @BS Detector: If Syrian regime is do effective in stopping extremists then Pakistan Army should train with Syrian forces, Algeria was a success, was not it!Recommend

  • yousaf
    Jul 11, 2012 - 9:26PM

    Its most unlikely that Syria becomes Afghanistan.I see no chance because the analogy doesn’t fit here


  • Sajjad
    Jul 11, 2012 - 10:36PM

    In the end Taliban took control and is seeking control of pakistan as well … lets see how Muslim brothe hood of Syria , Egypt and turkey do in Syria …. lets see how Burqas and beards role Damscus and Istanbul … lets wait for turkish Lal masjid …. lets see how they role …


  • Mladen
    Jul 12, 2012 - 4:40AM

    Turkey, Russia and even Iran could live with democratic Syria. But working democracy in Syria means death for GCC kings and for that reason rebels reject political solution which is regime change after you win elections. It worked well in Eastern Europe.

    Alternative is breakup of Syria as rebels don’t have chance to win in area west of Damascus – Aleppo road. People there definitely don’t want Salafist government and regime haven’t even started mass mobilization.

    Apparently, Western governments will settle on political solution, which means Arab Spring could happen on Arab Peninsula in couple of years. It’s far better option then Salafist victory in whole of Muslim world, followed with cold war against West.


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