Questions about the strikes, led by the US with British and French support, on Syria were raised as soon as they were carried out. These questions dealt primarily with two issues: The scale of the strikes, and their prime objective. However, it is impossible to ignore that they came a few hours before the start of the 29th Arab summit in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
The summit could not have been convened in more troubled times, and on several levels: First, in the Gulf region and Arabian Peninsula there is the Qatar issue and the Iranian support to the Houthi coup in Yemen.
Secondly, in the Middle East – as a whole – there is the bigger picture of intersecting, conflicting and integrated plans at the expense of the region’s people. Internationally, the ‘Cold war’ is looming on the horizon, whether in a timid way or in the shape of reciprocated blackmail, and noticing how even Western democracies and their well-established political and party institutions have been running towards extremism, populism, and even outright racism.
The Qatar issue is a minor detail in Gulf security, but this is not the case of Iranian intervention which has reached unprecedented levels after years of accumulation due to the former US administration turning a blind eye to Tehran’s ambitions, and the late response of Yemeni and Arab sides to their repercussions in Yemen.
Internal cohesion and strength should be prioritized in a world of ever changing equations, and collapsing illusions about friends and foesEyad Abu Shakra
As a result, the Houthi-controlled areas now in open rebellion against UN resolutions, GCC initiatives, as well as resolutions of Yemeni National Dialogue, have become launch pads for ballistic missiles and the spread of sectarian tension in a sensitive part of the Arab World.
The mission entrusted to the Houthi rebels complements similar missions Tehran has given to its henchmen, backing them with money, arms, training, and media resources; succeeding so far in creating influential political players in more than one Arab country.
Here, it is necessary to analyze the Arab scene as a whole. Indeed, it is quite sad to realize that there seems to be no end in sight to the state of division and fragmentation be it in the Palestinian file, the Syrian file, the fight against extremism and terrorism, or the containment of regional interventions in Arab affairs.
The meddling would not have been possible had respect for human rights and proper citizenship been prioritized. Worse still, is that some Arab parties believe that respect for human rights and proper citizenship contradict with the fight against extremism and terrorism.
Thus, we find ourselves in a ‘dark tunnel’ of contradictions which undermine human rights and serve the cause of extremists – namely, those raising ultra-conservative Islamist slogans – by giving them undeserved credibility.
Here too, for some Arabs, the form becomes more important than the essence, and loud empty slogans gain an advantage against the principles on which the coexistence, needed for internal consolidation, is built. Internal vulnerability is undoubtedly a main reason behind outsiders’ ambitions, which is exactly what we see today in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.
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A few decades ago, a Palestinian intellectual living in the West, argued that if Palestinians shun the concept of a tolerant and democratic state, they would be playing into the hands of Israel’s extreme right. He also said that a phenomenon like Hamas – unknowingly – allows this extreme Israeli right to mobilize internally, and gain sympathy internationally.
Furthermore, in the calculations of the Israeli right, the move towards religious extremism inside the Occupied Territories would justify the rhetoric of Israeli settlers on biblical grounds. Thus, what has always been an undoubted just humanitarian cause becomes an endless confrontation between two religions, blurring the dividing lines between the culprit and the victim.
The situation in Syria is as bad as the Palestinian Occupied Territories but the way Arabs are dealing with it is becoming more problematic and confusing. When Bashar al-Assad began confronting peaceful popular demonstrations, there was almost unanimous Arab backing for the people’s uprising. Even Assad regime’s allies were too embarrassed to support him openly.
Hence, the Arab League was able to pass several anti-regime resolutions, including suspending Syria’s membership in the League, and withdrawing ambassadors from Damascus; only Iran-dominated member states and a couple of others siding with the regime. Russia too, before its real intentions became clear, claimed in the early days that it did not support the regime but was rather keen on a political settlement.
So the Assad regime intensified its bloody suppression and blackmailing under the pretext of fighting extremism and terrorism. In the meantime, claiming to be confronting Iran’s military intervention – initially, through Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and later through other Iranian, Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani ultra-sectarian militias – Arab and regional parties embarked on arming and aiding loyal extremist groups, and marginalizing moderate voices, which gradually began to dwindle.
On the other hand, the failure of some ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings, and the change in some viewpoints regarding their benefits, in addition to the fast consolidation of power by Egypt’s ‘political Islam’, provided a great boost to Assad to intensify the bloodshed and achieve ‘demographic changes’ through massacres.
Internationally, the regime and its backers made gains in 2013 when fictitious red lines announced by Barack Obama crumbled. This dangerous development confirmed that Obama preferred to reach an understanding with Iran and give it a free rein in the Middle East, than think about the fate of the Syrian people.
In the last few days, we witnessed yet again a Trump administration response that totally differs with his predecessor, although it was a little more than a message and less than a strike. Taking place just before the Dhahran Arab Summit, the Summit should have taken it on board, despite the fact that the message was intended for Moscow.
However, internal cohesion and strength should be prioritized in a world of ever changing conditions and equations, and collapsing illusions about friends and foes. The consolidation should take into consideration the dangers surrounding the Arab region and its entities, and understanding the ‘dynamics’ of the political game, and broad and narrow interests connected with it.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances. Eyad tweets @eyad1949.