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Opinion: The countdown has begun, but what about the objectives? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Moualem speaks during a news conference in Damascus August 27, 2013. (Reuters/ Khaled al-Hariri)

“We will defend ourselves using all means available,” Syrian foreign minister Walid Mouallem said on Tuesday during a press conference in Damascus. The minister’s statement marks an improvement on the ‘we reserve the right to retaliate’ reply that we have grown accustomed to hearing from Damascus.

I carefully watched Mouallem’s press conference and was not surprised by most of what he said.

At the end of the day, Mouallem works at the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, even if he is a cabinet minister. By this—I mean that with all due respect to the man—Mouallem only follows orders handed down to him, and which he is unable to gainsay, let alone disobey. Those who are familiar with his diplomatic record, as well as sources close to him during critical stages during his long career, confirm that Mouallem does not have the ability to object to or oppose the regime, let alone defect.

On Tuesday, Mouallem—who served as the Syrian ambassador to the US and thus is well aware of Washington’s military capabilities and international influence—spoke in simplistic terms, making sense only to the submissive and brainwashed Syrian media that reiterates slogans it neither comprehends nor means.

Mouallem was speaking to the helpless Syrian people whom the Assad security regime has been treating as hostages for more than four decades. As for those outside Syria, Mouallem knew beforehand that they were always skeptical and will not believe him, whatever he says. At the same time, Mouallem had to do his best to appear normal, confident and assured regarding the rhetoric he was espousing.

It was funny, though, how Mouallem made reference to the large number of local reporters—compared to the foreign ones—attending the press conference, a fact that surely came as no surprise to him!

The policy the Assad regime has adopted since it chose bloody oppression as a means to confront the peaceful popular uprising was based on banning the media. The regime seems to follow the proverb that says, “Those who lie must keep eyewitnesses at a distance.” In fact, for more than two and a half years, the Assad regime has not only banned journalists but also sometimes killed them, in addition to imposing restrictions on independent media outlets. In contrast, it has mobilized pro-Assad propagandists to mislead the public and fabricate lies on every occasion.

I do not know why, but Mouallem’s tone reminded me of that of contemporaries such as former Iraqi information minister Muhammad Saeed Al-Sahhaf, former Libyan deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaim, and former Libyan pro-Gaddafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim.

On the other hand, it was remarkable how the reporters appeared disappointed and worried by Russia’s new stance as expressed by Sergey Lavrov when he said that “we [Russia] have no plans to go to war” even if military intervention takes place in Syria.

In fact, reporters have every reason to worry about the regime’s long-standing obstinacy as well as the endless muscle-flexing practiced by pro-Assad propagandists in Syria and Lebanon.

Moreover, the international community’s decision to take action was surprising to many of those watching the Syrian tragedy. They have almost lost hope of the world suffering any pangs of conscience regarding the necessity of deterring the Assad gang, which is rejoicing in murder, and gambling on US passiveness and repulsive opportunism on the parts of China and Russia. As everybody knows, this has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Syrians. The domestic situation in Syria has, in fact, become even more complicated with the emergence of radical groups that the Syrian people are thoroughly fed up with and consequently resisting. This is evidenced by what is happening in Al-Raqqa province and some areas in Deir Ezzor and Al-Haskah.

Today, there is a consensus that there will be a US strike on Syria, while the Syrian opposition’s ambassador to France, Dr. Monzer Makhous, announced that the countdown to the US strike on Syria has begun.

The moves and statements in Western and non-Western capitals indicate that a new stage has begun in dealing with the Assad regime, which lives in its own world, believing that it can endlessly capitalize on contradictions. This is a stage of actions, not words.

Obviously, something has been prepared, and the Assad regime’s habits of outwitting others and of self-deceit—represented by the “No war without Egypt, no peace without Syria” slogan it is promoting—are no longer valid.

This means that we have to expect a military strike, but of what size and for what purpose?

There is talk that any military action will not include boots on the ground, according to the pledge made by US president Barack Obama. The strike may also bypass the obstacle of UN Security Council approval, as hinted by British foreign secretary William Hague.

This means that the US strike will most likely be a disciplinary action to warn Assad that his continuing crimes are no longer acceptable. On the other hand, the strike could also aim to reduce the regime’s capacity to use its weapon stockpile. Furthermore, some of those monitoring the situation believe that such a strike, in light of Russia’s change of attitude, will push the Assad regime to the negotiating table at Geneva II. This course of events is compatible with what the West has reiterated throughout the past months: that a “political settlement” in Syria is inevitable.

On the other hand, however, if we are to argue that Russia will turn a blind eye to the military strike and that Mouallem’s statements echo the obstinacy of the Assad regime, we must also speculate about Iran’s reaction.

How will Tehran respond? Who will be responsible for this decision: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, or Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani?

How will Lebanon’s Hezbollah deal with any strike? Will it continue its involvement in the Syrian crisis after it takes on more serious and major dimensions? Could the Shi’ite militia seek to provoke Israel in a bid to expand and draw attention away from the crisis?

Following the explosions that shook Beirut’s southern suburbs and Tripoli, does the Hezbollah leadership now believe that the fate of Lebanon is at stake? Despite this, the group—as things look—is committed to dividing the region into factional camps.

We are now on the threshold of new realities. What is important is that military efforts be commensurate with the main political objective; namely, to rescue the Syrian people from a criminal regime and allow them, along with their neighbors, to live in free countries that guarantee equal rights for all citizens, and respect their creeds and identities.