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Opinion: Isn’t it Time for Safe Havens in the Middle East? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Men carry an oxygen tank from the Red Crescent medical center after it was bombed, in Al-Sakhour neighborhood of Aleppo, on April 28, 2015. (Reuters/Hamid Khatib)

Political, social, and economic problems neither solve themselves nor dissolve and disappear with time. They require honesty with oneself and others as well as practical and courageous commitment to change unacceptable facts on the ground. Think of how President Barack Obama is handling US policies towards the Middle East. I cannot help citing Henry Clay’s famous words: “Sir, I’d rather be right than be president!”

Today, one can summarize Washington’s approach towards Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon as follows:

– In Iraq, it is the unwavering support for the ruling elite jointly brought to power by the 2003 US invasion and Iran’s expansionist policies.

– In Syria, the virtual disregard of human suffering and meaningless “red-lines” after four years and three months of the country’s popular uprising.

– In Lebanon, the tacit acceptance of Hezbollah’s hegemony after neutralizing the former battlefront with Israel through UN Security Council Resolution 1701.

In all three cases Washington’s policies have been underpinned by Obama’s all-out push for an “agreement” with Iran, and his exploitation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) extremism as the perfect justification for such an agreement, eventually developing into a fully fledged alliance.

This reading of the situation may appear to contradict the contents of the US State Department’s annual terrorism report for 2014 published a few days ago, especially regarding Iran and its “sponsored terror groups.” After describing Hezbollah as a terrorist group it went on to say that its “terrorist activity around the world continued unabated,” and that as “Iran’s chief and most capable proxy . . . [Hezbollah] accelerated its military role in support of the Syrian regime and continued to plant bombs along Israel’s northern borders. Such activities have worsened the security situation in Lebanon.” As such, it has provoked an extremist Sunni reaction, and invited extremist groups like ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front into Lebanon; and since the early 1980s Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force has been active inside Lebanon, noting that Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the Revolutionary Guard aerospace chief, publicly acknowledged that “the [Revolutionary Guard] and Hezbollah are a single apparatus joined together.”

This is the situation in Lebanon, where the country has failed to elect a new president after more than a whole year of a presidential vacuum, and where Hezbollah accept no candidate other than MP Michel Aoun, who is only too willing to be “the Lebanese copy of Iran’s Hassan Rouhani” acting under the real authority of the “Supreme Guide”—in this case the Secretary general of Hezbollah!

In Iraq, Washington seems to be convinced that it has done enough by replacing former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki with his comrade Haider Al-Abadi. It also looks as if it believes and wants everybody else to believe that Abadi can really defeat ISIS and rebuild a united and equitable Iraq—while in the presence of sectarian stalwarts like Hadi Al-Amri and Qais Al-Khaz’ali, the strident sectarianism of the Popular Mobilization, and unilateral Kurdish moves towards independence.

The most tragic situation, however, is definitely Syria’s, where little change in Washington’s approach has been forthcoming more than four years into the popular uprising, which has claimed more than 350,000 lives and displaced more than 10 million, as well as witnessing the use of all kinds of weapons including internationally prohibited chemical weapons.

Time and time again defensive no-fly zones and border-area safe havens were suggested, only to be shot down by the Obama administration under the pretext that they would force America into combat. Well, this is exactly what it decided to do once ISIS threatened Iraq! What has happened since, is that the whole of Syria has been transformed into a “safe haven” for all strains of extremists flocking to its territories from all corners of the world to fight an “unholy religious war” at the expense of the Syrian people and on the ashes of its cities, dreams, and future.

Throughout the last four years, the Arab Sunni Muslims have provided the vast majority of the uprisings’ civilian casualties, although religious and sectarian minorities, mainly the ruling Alawites, have suffered heavily in terms of losses to military personnel.

This said, the uprising which has metamorphosed into a civil war is now moving to another stage with a different kind of danger. Syria looks now as if it is en route to having its map completely redrawn—that is, partitioned—as the Assad regime seems increasingly unable to fight back despite the generous backing it is receiving from its regional sponsors. Thus, with the re-imposition of hegemony a thing of the past, the only option left for the regime—and its sponsors—is to consolidate its forces in what has been described as “Useful Syria,” in the western part of the country. It is worth noting here that ISIS is already in control of vast areas in central, eastern, and southern Syria, while secessionist Kurds are steadily making way for their mini-state along the Turkish borders.

Sure enough, all is not completed. Some final touches remain under big question marks: Will the Arabs stay silent if the population of the border town Tel Abyad is cleansed? Will Turkey turn a blind eye if the town of ‘Azaaz and neighboring little Turkmen towns and villages in Aleppo province are occupied by the Kurds, attempting to extend their mini-state to the Mediterranean via the Kurdish town of ‘Afrin, west of ‘Azaaz? What will the Christians do if partition comes to pass, bearing in mind they are scattered all over Syria’s provinces, and make up a sizeable percentage of city dwellers? Can the Alawites secure their own Alawite mini-state where the Sunnis make up a high percentage of the population in the four major coastal cities Latakia, Tartus, Jableh, and Banyas? How will the Druze react given the fact that neither the regime nor some hardliners within the opposition accept their bid for neutrality? What will befall what remains of the country’s minorities after the collapse of all remaining safety nets as all fighting factions prepare for a final showdown?

Israel, which has kept relatively quiet for four years, is now preparing for action as it feels the time is now right to brandish the flag of “protection” before worried minorities in order to gain their gratitude and loyalty. It began by insinuating that it would positively respond to the pressure of its own Druze community who are now very anxious about the fate of their brethren living across the ceasefire line in the Golan Heights and beyond. It is worth remembering too that Turkey had also threatened action, although it refrained—generally speaking—from any significant intervention.

Given the current challenges, and despite Washington’s negative position, there has been no better time for establishing safe havens in both northern and southern Syria.

If agreed with Jordan, a southern safe haven will most likely keep Israel away from what is already a volatile and confused regional formula; while if a northern safe haven is agreed with Turkey it could spare the region what may be the devastating repercussions of an independent Kurdish state.

To wrap up, such a solution might work for Yemen too!