It has been a tragedy that no one wanted, a tragedy that most commentators had predicted. I was in Syria in 2010, and everywhere I went you could feel the strength of Assad. His picture was strung up everywhere. The country was tightly controlled by Damascus. You were not allowed to criticise him and there was an anti-West feeling across the country that helped to unify this country of perhaps 28 million people. Ten per cent were of the Orthodox religion and a higher amount were Druze. In Syria, I was almost kidnapped for being English/Westerner when I visited a city on the coast.

A year later I was in Lebanon. Again, I was hearing about Assad and how he keeps Syria together through fear, not respect. This was a similar way of keeping Iraq together, Libya, Yemen, Egypt… When the Arab Spring sprang to life in 2011, it was thought in the West that democracy would finally emerge, eradicating ‘evil regimes’ once and for all, the same regimes that had previously received tacit support from the West and other powers such as Russia. When strong dictatorial regimes are put in to place, usually with international backing, there is an absence of opposition, massive corruption, oppressed masses and fear. There is a pattern that simply gets repeated in Africa and the Middle East.

When people such as myself protested on the streets of Australia in 2003 against the invasion of Iraq it was due to the fact that there was no basis for the invasion. It was also to help stop an invasion that would break up an artificial country that would surely have a knock-on effect in the Middle East. In no time, the region was destabilised as hundreds of thousands were killed – replacing Saddam with democracy because Fox News and the supporters of Bush thought would be the best ‘result’ for a country which had never experienced it.

Of course democracy would fail, especially when the entire security apparatus of the country was dismantled. The US cheered and ‘mission accomplished’ was the order of the day. When American media became tired of seeing their brave troops return in body bags, naturally public opinion meant that ‘solutions’ had to be found. A great one by Obama was to pull out troops. “Let’s bring them home for Christmas!”

Incredibly, this was what happened, as they also pulled troops out of Afghanistan. Two countries with an artificial democracy; not yet ready to defend itself nor out of danger from internal and external forces.

Once again, US media had its way (apologies to those in the media not supportive of US troop withdrawal). Public opinion and the media in a ‘real’ democracy can actually dictate policy, ironically. The irresponsible decision to invade and then withdraw has led to the uncontrollable situation we now have. Syria and Iraq are a mess and millions of people are flooding Turkey and Europe. The refugee crisis is an outcome of Western meddling in the Middle East. Not everyone in the media is a trained analyst or military strategist, yet somehow they seem to have the answers and subsequently place undue pressure on regimes such as Obama to make poor judgements. When you meddle in the Middle East, a major power must be willing to stay the long haul. If you create the mess, fix it. That never seems to be the case, and after the British and French did untold damage to the region post World War II, it’s now the turn of the US and Russia, to a lesser extent.

Across the water in Libya, Gaddafi was tolerated in the full knowledge that he controlled his region. When he finally showed signs of ageing whilst interacting with the West, the US and Europe found a way to support the rebels to bring him down. Considering the barbaric way he ruled, he will not be missed. However, under the cover of the Arab Spring, we now have civil war taking place in Libya. There is no stability. No democracy. The US once again meddled and once again backed off. Libya, an ancient country, is now a country on paper only. Millions of people suffer, as they do in neighbouring countries where the West had hoped to install democracy. You cannot artificially create democracy where there is no history of recent opposition, freedom of speech and freedom of media. Though judging by how much the media controls US foreign policy, maybe that can be construed as a good thing.


There are few remedies that work. One aspect that needs to be examined is the role that external powers play in these countries. When you have a US that is tied to special interest groups and the media, and a toothless UN, you need to be wary of any power that believes it can resolve the mess. The EU is great at bullying Greece and Cyprus but has minimal ability to effect and stabilise the region. Its inability to protect Palestinians is a case in point, which in turn puts Israel at risk.

The EU, the US and others failed to correct the 20th century mistakes made in the Middle East. They were keen to bring in rulers who allied themselves with the West, then failed to create a contingency for when these regimes fell. Rather than worry about US public opinion and the media, Obama should have stepped in to Syria before IS did. That would have meant tens of thousands of lives spared and precious monuments preserved. His troops should never have departed from Iraq and Afghanistan until the region was actually safe.

This is all in hindsight. Now we have refugees that onlyTurkey and Europe seem keen to take. The rest of the Arab world (Lebanon, Jordan are excluded) need to do more. They need to take them as well, as do Russia and China.

Additionally, the Arab world, along with the US and Russia, needs to intervene on the ground to restore order. A return of international troops to Iraq, Libya, Syria, as painful as it may be, will actually return a greater sense of security. Innocent people deserve protection. Forget Western style democracy, it won’t work in the region, just yet.

Create boundaries based on national aspirations, i.e. redraw the Middle East fairly.

Find out what the local populations want, how do THEY want to be governed?

Stop having endless committee meetings with men in suits, act rather than take minutes. Understand that religion is not necessarily the problem. The problem is by and large an absence of security and prosperity that has been created by past regimes and Western meddling.

I met a lot of people on my travels – my heart goes out to them and the people who suffer needlessly. Solutions must be found before Syria and other countries provide more refugees, forced from where they were born and raised.

* Billy Cotsis travelled the Middle East and North Africa before the Arab Spring and has a background in international studies.