Eyad Abu Shakra
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on : Friday, 13 Sep, 2013
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Opinion: Maneuvering, Iranian Style

I don’t understand how US president Barack Obama conceives his plans. I doubt that those close to him, or those, like me, monitoring the scene from afar, can understand his strategy towards the Middle East as a whole. . . . That is, if he has one in the first place.

On Tuesday, President Obama promised us a “potentially positive development” regarding the Russian proposal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. For his part, Sergey Lavrov, the grim face of Russian diplomacy, said he was waiting for Syria’s reaction to the proposal.

This was a theatrical, if not farcical, gesture.

It was strange how this waiting period did not last long. In fact, it was not destined to last long, particularly after Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem was summoned to Moscow to appear in a staged press conference that took place in the context of Russia’s PR counter-campaign aimed at blocking Obama and the Western leaders’ efforts to convince the public of the merits of a punitive military strike against the Assad regime.

The scenario is clear: what Russia needs is to gain more time in order to dishearten already-reluctant and unenthusiastic Western leaders, in addition to misleading the Western public—along with their leaders—by placing the issue of chemicals, and the debate raging around this, center stage in the Syrian crisis.

The allies of the Assad regime have managed to impose their agenda on the international community despite the fact that the August 21 chemical attack was one of the worst atrocities committed against civilians in modern history. They directed the world’s attention away from a series of disturbing facts, reducing the entire tragedy to the issue of chemical weapons disarmament.

No one today speaks about the siege of Baba Amr, the children of Dara’a or Aleppo’s ancient souks.

No one speaks about the between 100,000 and 150,000 Syrians who have been killed or the third of the population that has been displaced.

No one speaks about how extremist Takfirist groups have been able to enter a police state that has been ruled by the security and intelligence services for over four decades. This is a police state where any political opposition figure found themselves thrown in jail for years on end.

No one speaks about the state of sectarian and religious polarization today poisoning the atmosphere of the entire Middle East.

The liberal and progressive powers in the West insist on not repeating the mistakes of Iraq, forgetting at the same time that the only way to rectify the mistake of Iraq is by changing the geopolitical situation produced by the 2003 war and its repercussions on the ground.

In fact, we are facing a situation that is closer to that of Iran expanding its nuclear program in full view of the world despite the international community’s empty verbal condemnations.

We are now watching the Tehran–Moscow axis presenting the Syrian crisis to the world within the framework of the fight against takfirism and protection of minorities, carrying out the same maneuver they patiently and very successfully used regarding Iran’s nuclear program. This has resulted, as we all know, in the West maintaining silence over Iran’s growing nuclear power, allowing Tehran to secure greater regional influence in the Middle East—something that is tacitly approved by the Israelis, although Tel Aviv would deny this. In fact, one could say that the Tehran–Moscow axis has completely redrawn the regional map, while the Arabs have been conspicuously absent from this process.

This bitter reality must not be ignored.

Yes, there is a crisis caused by extremist Takfirists who confuse and threaten the countries of the Mashriq. Unfortunately, some of the Syrian opposition’s credibility has been damaged by repeatedly denying the influential role played by these extremist groups in the fight against the Assad regime. The reality is that such groups do exist, and they pose the most serious obstacle to the Syrian revolution. The fact of the matter is that these groups are the true allies of Assad and his regime, particularly as he takes every opportunity to make reference to their presence on the ground and their unacceptable practices. The Christian village of Maalula has enjoyed its fair share of world media coverage, varying between objective reporting to blatant incitement; however, the confrontations between extremist groups and the residents of Al-Raqqa and other Syrian Sunni-dominated cities are a reality that deserve to be brought to light.

The pro-Assad Christian propagandists appearing in Lebanon during the past days as Maalula took center stage in the Syrian crisis are a part of a campaign to mobilize international public opinion against the Syrian revolution. What happened in the Christian-dominated town of Maalula and the car bombs in the Druze-dominated district of Jaramana and the Ismaili majority city of Al-Salamiyah represent the tip of the iceberg of the regime’s grand regional project.

Today, it seems clear that President Obama does not have much time to consider the issue of extremist Takfirist groups and their network of ties throughout the region. He does not want to know who has infiltrated and is hosting these groups, exploiting their presence on the ground.

It is necessary and essential to protect minorities in Syria and its neighboring countries. However, the international community is very much mistaken if it believes that allowing tyrants to oppress their people will provide minorities with sufficient protection from the risks of fundamentalism and Takfirist extremism.

The entire world has seen how Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and non-democratic practices only served to strengthen Iran-backed Shi’ite radicalism. It would therefore be beneficial to learn from the lessons of Iraq when dealing with a Syrian dictatorship that originally belonged to the same Ba’athist school of thought, in addition to adopting similar principles of exclusion and monopolization of power.

It was natural that the majority of Shi’ites in Iraq during the era of Saddam Hussein found a refuge from dictatorship in sectarianism. Therefore, it is normal that the same thing would happen in Syria with regards to the Sunni majority.

What does this all mean? It means that US president Barack Obama must see the big picture, rather than throwing away his compass and simply following Moscow and Tehran’s lead. Obama must realize, before it is too late, that the Iraq mistake can be rectified by learning its lessons, as well as by creating pluralistic and democratic entities that allow the minorities and the majority to live in an atmosphere of coexistence and mutual respect, rather than handing the Levant and Iraq over to a sectarian regional project that will only drive the minorities away.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with the newspaper since 1978.

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