“It is time for resolute resistance!” This is the advice given by Tehran’s radical newspapers to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad as he faces a crucial moment in his presidency.
The advice, backed by statements of support from Iran’s Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, is supposed to bolster Syria’s position in the coming clash with the United Nations over the murder of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri.
Mischievous souls might suggest that the Islamic Republic’s attempt at persuading Syria to act recklessly is not entirely disinterested. After all, a crisis over Syria could divert attention from the Islamic Republic’s own problems with the UN, over the nuclear issue, for months if not years.
In a speech in Tehran last Sunday President Ahmadinejad spoke of the “irreconcilability” of the Islamic Republic with the new global system. “What our enemies object to is the nature of the Islamic Republic,” he said. “If we solve the nuclear problem, they will raise the issue of human rights.” In other words what those supposed “enemies” want is regime change in Tehran.
On the basis of that analysis it is in Tehran’s interest to push others ahead of itself in the queue for regime change. This is why Tehran welcomed and cooperated in bringing about regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now that Syria and Iran are the last two remaining candidates for regime change, the Islamic Republic is keen to push its Syrian friends ahead in the queue. This is why Tehran wants Syria to act “heroically” and challenge the “arrogant Imperialistic powers.”
For those who like conspiracy theories, here is another possible explanation for Tehran’s desire to push Damascus into open conflict with the UN: The Islamic Republic has emerged as the immediate beneficiary of the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. It is no longer obliged to share its control over Hezballah with the Syrians and, provided the current uncertain situation continues, it could emerge as the only regional power with major influence in Lebanon’s domestic politics. While Syria is being “ heroic”, the Islamic Republic would have time to consolidate its position in Lebanon and emerge as the principal winner from status quo change, as it has done in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Advising others to be heroic is nothing new in the Middle East.
Arab intellectuals have offered that advice to the Palestinians for the past 50 years. Speaking from a safe distant and taking no personal risks, they have urged the Palestinians to reject any attempt at peacemaking and continue their “heroic struggle”, presumably until the last drop of Palestinian blood. They have composed poems in praise of Palestinian “suicide-martyrs”, and opposed any suggestion that it might be more humane to bring the Palestinians out of refugee camps, regularize their status, and allow them to work and live in normal conditions wherever they happen to be.
No, no, no. The Palestinians must die or live a living death in refugee camps so that we concerned intellectuals and politicians, living comfortable lives far away, can pose as heroes of “the cause.”
The truth, however, is that the worst thing that can happen to any people or country is to become a “cause”.
President Assad should avoid this at all cost, including the cost of being castigated by the armchair revolutionaries in Tehran or Arab capitals of “betraying the cause.” He should ignore those who shout about “Arab honour” from a safe distant but would not lift a finger to help if and when, God forbid, Syria is drawn into a conflict that it cannot handle.
Both Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban guru, and Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi despot, might well have had suicidal tendencies. But there is no doubt that both were encouraged by armchair revolutionaries who fanned the fires of their illusions. Omar and Saddam were urged to “stand up for the honour of Islam and of Arabs”. Omar is now hiding , possibly in a cave, while Saddam is in prison.
Syria is one of the last few countries where a single man still takes all the major decisions. This is why President Assad bears an even heavier burden of responsibility for whatever happens to his people.
In contemplating his next moves he would do well to ponder a number of considerations.
First, he must remember that the first and most important duty of a leader is to ensure the safety and security of his people. Leaders who, like Omar and Saddam treat their peoples as mere pawns in an egotistic game, have always been doomed by history. A great leader is one who, when necessary, manifests humility to avoid the humiliation of his nation.
President Assad should also remember that there are no permanent friends and foes in politics. Those who pretend to be his friend at this juncture are unlikely to take risk their own interests in order to help him. The Russians and the Chinese may veto a tough resolution against Syria, although even that is not certain. But neither would or could help Syria win a war against the United States and the European Union.
Finally, President Assad knows that the Syrian people, who might be prepared to accept any hardship to defend their country if unjustly attacked, would find it hard to sacrifice their lives s to protect a handful of alleged criminals. Going to war to defend one’s homeland is one thing, fighting to prevent murderers from being brought to justice is something else.
The crisis triggered by Hariri’s assassination must be seen as a point of rupture for both Syria and Lebanon. Syria needs to make a clean break with the policies of the past five decades- policies that led to the loss of the Golan Heights, produced the longest period of economic depression in the country’s history, and now risk turning Syria into a pariah state. It is obvious that those politics, regardless of whether they were right o wrong in the past, no longer work. Syria needs a new strategy that reflects the interests of its people in a changing world.
What Syria faces today is a choice between regime change and a change of regime. This is not a semantic trick. Regime change is imposed by outside forces while a change of regime is possible when a determined group within the establishment imposes a change of course.