Afghanistan and Syria: How History is Repeating Itself


The violence in Syria is escalating and the international community’s efforts to resolve the situation through the United Nations peace plan have failed, leading to Kofi Annan’s resignation as the UN’s Syria envoy. Syrians are in dire need of a peaceful, sustainable resolution but owing to the number of factions involved and the serious human rights violations that have been carried out, an internal resolution of this conflict seems unlikely. Russia and the US need to put their differences aside and focus on the humanitarian benefits of a resolution brokered by outside forces. If the conflict is not resolved, we could see a repeat of Afghanistan in Syria. The pattern that is emerging is too familiar.

When Kofi Annan resigned as UN Syria envoy, he gave this counsel:

Syria can still be saved from the worst calamity. But this requires courage and leadership, most of all from the permanent members of the Security Council, including from Presidents Putin and Obama. Is ours an international community that will act in defense of the most vulnerable of our world, and make the necessary sacrifices to help? The coming weeks in Syria will tell.

The escalation of the conflict in Syria over the past 18 months, from protests during the Arab Spring to civil war, has shown that stability cannot be achieved without outside intervention. The parties with the power to intervene support opposite sides – the US supports the Syrian opposition and Russia supports President Bashar al-Assad’s government. This dynamic resembles the conflict in Afghanistan between the US and the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Now however, the Cold War is over and both the US and Russia are members of the United Nations Security Council. Instead of allowing Syria to become a “proxy war” between the two, as Afghanistan was, Russia and the US have the opportunity to jointly facilitate a peaceful solution. If they choose to continue without compromise, the same fate that befell Afghanistan could befall Syria. The road to instability and long-term conflict is a familiar one.

The evolution of the internal Afghan conflict began in 1978 when the Afghan Marxist-Leninist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), came to power. This was welcomed by the Soviet Union initially, but the situation deteriorated. There was infighting in the PDPA which led to open protests. After PDPA General Secretary Mohammad Daoud had the protesting communist leaders in Kabul arrested, covert Soviet forces within Afghanistan had Daoud killed. The PDPA continued to be unstable and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and installed Babrak Karmal as PDPA General Secretary in December 1979. The Soviets did not anticipate, however, the role that the Islamic Revolution in Iran would play in the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. In a similar way to the Arab Spring that spread from Egypt to Libya and Syria in 2011, the religious fervor that was sweeping through Iran in 1979, overthrowing Western-backed Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi and installing Islamic religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini, eventually spread to Afghanistan. Afghan rebels, the Mujahedeen, began revolting against the Soviet-backed PDPA, and the conflict quickly escalated. Although the Soviet Union claimed to have a purely ideological interest in the success of the communist Afghan government, they had other, more compelling reasons for their intervention. The Soviet geopolitical investments in Afghanistan were important both for military operations and trade. By stabilizing Afghanistan with a communist government, the Soviets could facilitate trade with neighboring India and finally have access to a warm-water ocean port, something Russia had tried to achieve for centuries.

The United States also had significant interests at stake. The US saw the Mujahedeen as freedom fighters against the spread of communism and the Soviet empire, and began clandestinely supporting them in early 1980, and making Afghanistan another Cold War “proxy war”, just like the Vietnam and Korean wars, which pitted the Soviet supported Afghan government (PDPA) against the US supported Mujahedeen. By the time the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988, the US had spent approximately $3 billion in aid for the Mujahedeen.

In the midst of this conflict, US President Ronald Reagan said on March 21, 1983:

Yet, while we condemn what has happened in Afghanistan, we are not without hope. To watch the courageous Afghan freedom fighters battle modern arsenals with simple hand-held weapons is an inspiration to those who love freedom. Their courage teaches us a great lesson – that there are things in this world worth defending.

After the Soviets withdrew, however, the US stopped supporting the opposition forces and Afghanistan fell into chaos. Eventually an Islamic extremist group, the Taliban, took control of Afghanistan and created a repressive regime that fostered the growth of terrorist organizations, such as Al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden who had lived in Afghanistan and supported the Mujahedeen during the Soviet war. Al-Qaeda then planned and executed the September 11th attacks on the US which, in turn, led the US to invade Afghanistan, generating the volatile situation that remains in the country today.

In Syria, the positions taken by Russia and the US have created a similar dynamic to the one in Afghanistan thirty years ago. In March 2011, the Syrian opposition, as part of the Arab Spring, began protesting against the Syrian government in an ideological pursuit of freedom and democracy. The US supports the Syrian opposition as freedom fighters against an authoritarian dictatorship, while Russia supports the Syrian government because of its political and economic importance to Russia. Already, as a result of the Arab Spring, Russia has lost approximately US$4.5 billion in cancelled Libyan contracts. In addition, the international sanctions against Iran have cost Russia possibly as much as US$13 billion in lost revenue. If President al-Assad’s government falls, Russia is likely to lose its contracts with Syria, worth approximately US$5 billion. Equally important is the Syrian port in Tartus, which is the location of the only Russian military base outside the former Soviet Union. Therefore, it is not surprising that Russia refuses to vote with the US in condemning President al-Assad’s regime and forcing a resolution that would favor the Syrian opposition. Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama has reportedly signed a secret order allowing for clandestine support of the Syrian opposition. President Obama made the following statement on July 23, 2012:

We will continue to work with our friends and allies – and the Syrian opposition – on behalf of the day when the Syrian people have a government that respects their basic rights to live in peace and freedom and dignity.

So far in the Syrian conflict, history appears to be repeating itself. There is time, however, for the US and Russia to choose a different path. A new UN envoy has been appointed, giving Washington and Moscow a unique opportunity to work together in the Security Council to create a peaceful resolution. Whether they will seize this opportunity, and prevent an unstable and dangerous future for the Syrian people, is far less certain.

Image courtesy osipowa

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About Elizabeth Austin

Elizabeth Austin has a Master’s in International Affairs from the American University of Paris (AUP), where she was awarded an AUP Travel Grant and completed her thesis field work in the South Caucasus. She then studied Russian Language and Literature in a year-long, multi-level course. Elizabeth also has a Master’s in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews, where she completed her dissertation field work in Cambodia, and she is a graduate of New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Elizabeth has contributed articles to International Policy Digest and Global Politics Magazine, and book reviews to E-International Relations.

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