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Opinion: A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Graffiti of a Syrian opposition flag. (REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)

Does Syria have any friends left?

This is a good question which should be raised before the G11 or the core “Friends of Syria” group meet in Jordan before the promised Geneva 2 conference takes place.

What precisely do some Friends of Syria want? Do all of those participating in the Jordan conference deserve to be called “friends”?

Any step taken regarding the Syrian file should achieve two objectives; first, end the bloodletting; second, reconstruct the social fabric of Syria that has been destroyed by the violent crackdown launched by Bashar Al-Assad and his regional allies. With extremist groups retaliating against the regime’s violence and dealing with Assad in almost the same style that he masters and cherishes, Syria’s social fabric continues to shrivel.

As for the first objective, stopping the bloodletting, it now seems impossible to deter the regime from its violent crackdown and its systematic destruction without firm deterrence. After two years of Iran and Russia fully supporting the regime on all levels—in comparison to the clear US failure to take action—Bashar Al-Assad seems to have no moral conscience towards halting the bloodshed. On the contrary, on several occasions Assad has sung the same tune of rescuing the country from what he terms as “criminal gangs of radical takfirists.”

We all remember how Iraqi President Saddam Hussein played a game of cat-and-mouse with Washington and the international community for more than a decade. At the time, the Soviet Union was in the process of collapsing while Moscow was still attempting to convince its allies that it would not forsake or sacrifice them. Saddam Hussein was then under the delusion that Moscow—despite the impending collapse of its international influence— would still be able to curb the US. Following the end of the rule of George Bush Senior’s “moderate Republicans” and Bill Clinton’s “liberal Democrats”, George Bush Junior’s “neoconservatives” were in power and Saddam’s Iraq became history in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks.

Nevertheless, the situation in Iraq in 2003 was completely different than that of Syria in 2013. Although the Assad regime’s record of human rights violation matches that of Saddam Hussein and both regimes made a habit of bullying their neighboring countries—either in the name of pan-Arabism or the liberation of Palestine—there are some differences between the two scenarios:

Firstly, “neoconservative” Washington has been replaced by “Obama’s Washington” which is exhausted by the military adventures of the past and the growing economic crisis. This led the US to seek even the slightest pretext in order to refrain from rescuing the Syrian people who are being killed and displaced just for standing in the face of a sectarian police state that has stifled the country for over 40 years.

Second, Israel—which in the past had deep concerns about Saddam Hussein’s ambitions—is not in the least worried about what Bashar Al-Assad, nor was it concerned about his father Hafez Al-Assad before him. This is due to the state of coexistence between the two countries which dates back to 1973.

Furthermore, despite the absurd war of words, Israel is not even troubled by Iran’s stated and prospective nuclear capabilities. In fact, Tel Aviv sold weapons to Khomeinist Iran during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). More than this, the “Zionist Lobby” in Washington—which is part and parcel of the “neoconservative” movement that planned and executed the 2003 invasion of Iraq—had been well aware of the geopolitical repercussions of toppling Saddam Hussein. These repercussions included Iran extending its influence in Iraq and beyond towards the Mediterranean Sea.

Third, Moscow witnessed significant changes between 1985 and 2003 and until today as well. Mikhail Gorbachev set the stage for the fragile Soviet Union’s collapse, and this was assured by Boris Yeltsin in 1991. Following the process of decline overseen by Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin—one of the stars of the KGB—came to power. Today, Tsar Putin is preoccupied with rebuilding the Russian Empire and taking revenge on the US for humiliating “Mother Russia.”

Fourth, Iran—which was under siege prior to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein—has become a major regional force, not only harming neighboring Arab states by stirring up sectarian tensions in the name of “resistance” but also neutralizing some of the major Islamist forces in the Arab Spring states in an attempt to incite them to crush the popular Syrian revolution.

Today the Syrian uprising is fruitlessly looking for friends to stop the regime from oppressing the people and plotting to divide the country into sectarian entities by controlling Homs and its surrounding villages. With all due respect to the real “friends” of Syria—some of whom are being blamed by the major international forces—we can only hope that all those who participate in the Jordan conference are sincere in their dealings with the Syrian people, and courageous enough to thwart the plots against Syria.

Is there any hope of Assad and his gang—who rely on prohibited lethal weapons and sectarian militias— abandoning power via dialogue?

With Russia firmly adhering to its opinion and the US agreeing with Moscow’s “diagnosis” of the Syrian crisis, will words be enough to persuade Bashar Al-Assad to end the Syrian nightmare?

Is it reasonable to assume that Iran—which over the past three decades has been investing in Iraq, Syria, and Iraq and providing all sorts of weapons, personnel and funding—will simply give up its regional ambitions and forsake its valuable presence on the Mediterranean coast and in the rest of the region?

I think that nobody but UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, and perhaps US Secretary of State John Kerry, could answer the above questions in the affirmative.