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The Syrian Orphan and a Club of Cynics
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Syria these days reminds me of an orphan surrounded by real enemies and false friends, forming a club of cynics, and trying to seize control of its destiny.

Consider just the following examples:

• Russian President Vladimir Putin insists that whatever “transition” is agreed must be chaperoned by President Bashar Al-Assad even though that might mean a return to square one. What counts for Putin is securing a bit more time during which he could build his military bases on the Syrian coast and then force any future government in Damascus to accept this as fait accompli.

• British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond suggests that Assad should remain in power for another six months during which unspecific miracle might reveal a way to peace in Syria. The suggestion is designed to cover London’s nakedness, creating the impression that Hammond and his colleagues are “doing something” about Syria.

• French President Francois Hollande wants Assad to go almost immediately but rejects the idea of taking any action against his regime. Call it posturing if you like, but Hollande appears more concerned about projecting his own image as a strong leader than doing anything about Syria. This is why he uses bellicose language he is quick to assert that he is not thinking of any French boots-on-the-ground scenario.

• Former British Foreign Secretary David Lord Owen suggests that Syria be put under a Jordanian mandate backed by the United Nations. The esteemed lord does not say how this is going to be done in the middle of a war that has split Syria into at least five segments. Nor is he concerned about such matters as Jordan’s ability to play a role far beyond its resources.

• The Barack Obama administration is dancing around the issue as it has been with regard to all other issues, notably the Iranian nuclear program, for the past seven years. Its latest posturing concerns the idea of creating a special force from unspecified “regional powers” to restore peace to Syria. The good news is that Vice President Joe Biden is not calling for carving up Syria into several mini-states as he keeps saying about Iraq.

• In Tehran, Ali-Akbar Velayati adviser to the Supreme Guide reports that his boss Ali Khamenei has decided that Assad must stay in power- period. Since whatever Khamenei says, whether it is on religious doctrine or film criticism is regarded as “fasl al-khitab” (end of discussion), there is no point in asking such silly questions as: What if Syrians do not want Assad? Worse still, it is increasingly clear that Tehran treats Assad as a puppet rather than an ally. Tehran demanding direct control of some territory inside Syria is just an indication of that changed attitude.

• The Syrian orphan has other uses for other people. Chancellor Angela Merkel says Germans are ready to receive up to a million Syrian refugees out of the goodness of their heart. Then Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel lets the cat out of the bag by hinting that a million Syrians, many of them middle-classers and reasonably well-educated, could do wonders for Germany’s collapsing demographic curve.

• Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is using Syrian refugees as a bogeyman to whip up chauvinistic and xenophobic sentiments and settle scores with the European Union which he has always regarded with suspicion.

• The Syrian refugee issue has also helped sectarians of all ilk to emerge from the woodwork. Greece and Bulgaria which have always maltreated their own Muslim minorities try to portray the current tragedy as a disguised Islamic invasion of Europe even though Syrians are fleeing the self-declared Caliphate of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), on one hand and the Assad gang backed by Tehran’s mullahs. In Slovakia and Poland people are openly demanding that only Christian Syrians be allowed in, although the whole world knows that all Syrian communities have suffered and are suffering from the current tragedy.

• The upshot of all this is that ISIS has become almost everyone’s second choice. The US and its few remaining allies are reluctant to attack ISIS in an effective way because crushing it might strengthen Assad.

• This week Iraqis revealed that Washington has, in effect, asked Baghdad to put an attack on ISIS in Ramadi on the backburner for the time being. Assad and his Iranian and Russian backers are not attacking ISIS either because they see the “Caliph” as an objective ally against other Syrian opposition forces.

• Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for his part, needs ISIS as a smokescreen behind which he could attack and, hopefully, destroy the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) bases inside Syria. He could easily shut ISIS’s logistics line through the Turkey frontier but does not. His claim is that Turkey would act if only the NATO allies, led by the US, agreed to also hit Assad, which they do not.

• The PKK and their Syrian Kurdish allies are also ambivalent about ISIS. They are ready to fight it if it threatens Kurdish areas but would not be prepared to hit against its core area. After all ISIS is a good excuse for PKK and its local allies to demand more money and arms from Western powers while chipping at territory controlled by Baghdad.

• The Iraqi government is also reluctant to take on ISIS in a serious way. Such a move might anger Tehran which, as already noted, does not want non-ISIS Syrian opposition forces to gain ground.
• Some Arab states also regard ISIS as the lesser of the evils compared to a Syria ruled by a coalition led by the Muslim Brotherhood which they regard as enemy number one.

• The core of the Syrian tragedy consists of the fact that Assad and ISIS represent the two faces of the same coin. Both want the Syrian people, or what is left of them inside the country, scripted out of the equation. Both have enough of a popular base to hang on for some more time even if they did not receive succor from the outside which they regularly do. At the same time neither is strong enough or is ever likely to have the popular base to impose its agenda on Syria.

• With ISIS as everyone’s second choice, the Syrian orphan seems doomed to a situation that Turks call “achmaz”, meaning “no-exit.”

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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