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Syria: technocrats at the crossroads | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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“Syria will not be another Libya,” says Walid al-Muallem, trying to put the debate about his country’s tragedy on a different trajectory.

In a sense, he is right. History does not repeat itself often, and, when it does, does it as farce. As Marx noted, the uncle’s tri-cornered hat becomes the dunce’s cap for the nephew.

Muallem who has acted as Bashar al-Assad’s Foreign Minister for years, does not seem to appreciate that, by comparing Syria with Libya, he implicitly admits that his country is in trouble.

His admission is no surprise. The Assad regime is becoming increasingly isolated. The Europeans are already on the warpath, albeit metaphorically, against the Assad regime. As for the Arabs, always late bloomers when it comes to doing the right thing, they have started playing catch-up with Europe and Turkey.

The Assad regime is left with few supporters led by the Islamic Republic in Tehran. However, even the mullahs are beginning to have doubts about Assad’s survival. The Khomeinist regime is an opportunist power, having no qualms about ditching allies that look like losers.

In Iraq, the mullahs dropped the Hakim clan, their old instrument, to put Muqtada al-Sadr, once their loudest enemy, on the payroll. They even paid for fixing his teeth and helped him take a new wife.

In Afghanistan, Tehran distanced itself from the Northern Alliance to flirt with the Taleban. The mullahs apply the cliché in manuals of cynicism: nations have no permanent friends and enemies, only permanent interests!

Thus, it is no surprise that Tehran has opened “channels of communication” with the Syrian opposition. Contact was established at Tehran’s request, soon after opposition figures met Russian diplomats.

Tehran could not let Turkey have a monopoly of initiatives regarding Syria. Iran has invested some $20 billion in Syria, compared with Turkey’s $25 billion. In the case of Iran, the investment is more significant because much of it belongs to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). If Iran ends up on the side of loser, that is to say the despot, a lot of IRGC money may be in danger.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi have carefully tried to put blue water between Tehran and Damascus. This week it was the turn of Iran’s Ambassador to Damascus, Muhammad-Reza Raouf, to play variation on the same theme.

“Syria needs profound reforms,” he mused. “In this, we add our voice to the voice of those who insist on change.”

Using “resistance” as a shibboleth, the Assad clan tries to advertise the support it hopes to get from the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas.

However, none of the 17 branches of Hezbollah operate as independent actors on any major issue. Hezbollah is an organization created, bankrolled and controlled by Tehran the way Moscow ran the Communist International (Comintern) in the 1930s. The head of the Lebanese branch, Hassan Nasrallah is a functionary of the Iranian government. If Tehran orders him to drop Assad he will do so without hesitation.

As for Hamas, its leader Khalid al-Mishal is already seeking a new exile address.

The question that al-Muallem should ask is not whether Syria could become another Libya. He should ponder where Syria might be a year from now.

Even supposing that, pursuing his policy of rule by massacre, Assad manages to impose the calm of the graveyard, the outcome may prove to be a pyrrhic victory.

Like every country, to survive and prosper Syria needs to fit into its geopolitical habitat. Under Assad, that may have become impossible.

One key element of the Syrian geopolitical habitat is the Mediterranean. Under Assad, Syria is being shut out of that space. Even Greece and Cyprus which always had close ties with Syria are now reluctant to dine with Assad, even with a long spoon.

Another key element in Syria’s geopolitical habitat is the Levant, the peninsula between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Here, too, Syria is being shut out.

As noted, Turkey is taking the lead in mobilizing the international community against the despot. It has established ties with the Syrian National Council and hosted the opposition’s conferences. Turkey is also contacting the United Nations to set up safe havens for Syrians fleeing massacre by Assad.

In the words of its king, Jordan has become the first Arab nation to publicly call on Assad to step aside. Jordan is also taking the first steps to create safe havens for Syrians just inside the border in Hauran.

In Lebanon, more and more political figures, encouraged by Walid Jumblatt’s recent remarks, are voicing concern about Syria. In talks with Western diplomats, even Prime Minister Najib Miqati, reputed to be a business partner of Assads, has voiced “reservations” about “the wisdom of the iron-fist policy” in Damascus.

For its part, Baghdad is beginning to show concern about the Syrian conflict spilling over into Iraqi territory. Few Iraqi leaders feel much affection for a despot who, for years, did everything to foment trouble in Iraq. Leaders of new Iraq did not love the Assad clan in the best of its days. They would be less likely to do so when, and if, Assad survives by massacring his people and becoming a pariah.

Syria is also being shut out of the Arab World. In unprecedented moves, the usually anaemic Arab League has built a strong position in support of the Syrian revolution.

The Assads may also be losing support from Israel. Since 1970, the Israeli elite have regarded the Syrian regime, dominated by the Nusairi minority, as a barrier against Islamists winning power by appealing to the Sunni majority. The theory was that Israel is safer when its neighbors are ruled by minorities. The theory was always daft. Today, it is also out of sync with reality. The world has changed and the Syrian uprising is not a sectarian phenomenon. Israel has no interest in backing a losing horse.

In Syria, despotism is heading for the exit. The real issue is how to organize the exit to minimize the cost in human lives. That is the question that al-Muallem, and technocrats like him, must contemplate.