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Hichem Karoui: Dead Man Walking
December 17, 2011
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

The State Department official, Frederic Hof, told Congress on Wednesday that Assad’s repression may allow him to hang on to power but only for a short time. Urging the Syrian opposition to prepare for the day when it takes control of the state in order to prevent chaos and sectarian conflict, he added: “Our view is that this regime is the equivalent of a dead man walking.” Hof compared Syria to North Korea and said it was difficult to determine how much time Assad has left in power but stressed, “I do not see this regime surviving.”

Part of the US objective in the course of manipulating both the Iranian and the Syrian issues is to deter Iran from completing an arc of influence from Iraq, after the US military withdrawal, through Syria and Lebanon, thus controlling a large field between the Gulf and the Mediterranean. Syria is an old ally of Iran. If the regime collapses, the interesting question is: who would occupy the ground? In the US assessment, whoever will rule Syria after Assad, would be under pressure from Iran throughout Iraq, whence the necessity to control the consequences even of the old alliance’s falling apart.

A post-Assad Syria does not need to collide with a heavily “influenced” Iraq. The borders between these two countries may become an area of arms smuggling and infiltration of pro-Iranian militias. This could be just the opposite of the ideal American scenario wherein a democratic-secular and liberal Syrian republic, preferably ruled by a pro-occidental (not necessarily pro-US) elite, would punish Iran as the main ally of the dictatorial regime by associating itself to the US-led policy of sanctions and isolation; extend its hand to a pro-US government in Iraq (if it remains friendly), and most of all cut off the support to the Palestinian factions considered radicals and — of course — to Hizbollah, while engaging in negotiations with Israel for a peace package.

So, if such a hypothesis happens to be valid, and if the regime continues the blind murderous rampage while rejecting the Arab League’s offers, a US-led external intervention to help toppling the regime would not surprise many observers. Yet, so far, it is unlikely.

Financially, such a war would be very expensive and, as Syria is unlike Libya deprived of big oil resources, the West — still striving with its own economic mess — is quite understandably reluctant to provide the Syrians with the same military means that were given to the Libyan rebels. For, who would pay for the war? Moreover, following the September 2007 Israeli air strike on a Syrian nuclear reactor, Damascus has invested in air defences; and according to some intelligence assessments, attacking it may cost human casualties and money.

Therefore, the only incentive that may convince the West to intervene may be a kind of big deal with the Syrian opposition, whereby the US and Western interests would be granted in the post-Assad era. Now, whether the Syrian opposition is ready to strike such a deal with the West, after the precedent of the Iraqi opposition, remains to be seen.

In the present conditions, a major military operation such as the one led against Qadhafi or Saddam is hardly imaginable and hazardous. For if the West is still keen on isolating — and maybe striking — Iran, why would they begin by waging a war on Syria in order to contain Iran? Actually, even a war against Iran may cost a lot more than its possible rewards if it leaves the regime intact. So, why risk the shot?

Maybe the “safe” tactics from the US perspective would be to weaken both regimes without confronting them directly: no need for their opposition to be bound by a strategic alliance to the USA. In this context, the opponents would be considered “useful” as long as the showdown with the Syrian (and possibly the Iranian) regime continues. Day in, day out, the regime of Damascus, blinded by its own incapacity to understand correctly and answer positively the Arab League’s offer, is digging a deeper grave for a rule that has become unbelievably fascistic in an era of generalised sympathy for the Arab spring protesters.

Hof is right to say: this is a dead man walking. For Bashar Al Assad so far acted as if he were his own enemy, not only the enemy of his people: he is just incapable to see and acknowledge that the Arabs were trying to avoid him the same doomed fate than Saddam and Qadhafi.

Such an endeavour from the Arab leaders is explainable only in the context of the Arab spring by the acknowledged centrality of Syria’s regional role. In 10 years of Assad’s unpopular rule, few events could have better underscored the centrality of such a role than his visit in July to Beirut and his meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri who had repeatedly charged him with killing his father. That charge had generated an international pressure forcing Syria out of Lebanon. Assad was joined in Beirut by Saudi Arabia’s king Abdullah, who together with Sheikh Hamad Al Thani, prince of Qatar, held a summit at which they pledged their cooperation in the effort to ensure political stability in Lebanon. That summit was meant to show the strong commitment of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Qatar to achieving that objective.

After the beginning of the protests in Syria, the Arab League remained a long time hesitating and trying to help Bashar Al Assad with the kind of “empty” discourse that angered the Syrian population to the point that they said: Assad is killing us with the blessing of the Arabs!

Why was that? Because the Arabs know perfectly what is at stake in Syria: this is not just a country like Tunisia, with almost no external problems, no wars, no occupied land, and no heterogeneous population... a country just striving for democracy and dignity. Syria, even without oil, is a strategic prize, because it commands: the struggle with Israel, the struggle with Iran, and the amazing mosaic of the Middle East population.

Unfortunately, the only people today unable to understand what is at stake, are those who are no longer fighting to stay in power (is there still a power in Syria?) but for their survival in a regime that seems definitely doomed and condemned to be like a dead man walking.

The author an expert in US-Middle East relations at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (Doha Institute).


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