Final countdown to the strike on Syria

Eyad Abu Shakra

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“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 Muallem’s press conference and was not surprised by most of what he said.

At the end of the day, Muallem works at the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, even if he is a cabinet minister. As a result, with all due respect, Muallem follows orders handed down to him, 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 Muallem does not have the ability to object or to oppose the regime, let alone defect.

This is a stage of actions, not words.

Eyad Abu Shakra

On Tuesday, Muallem, who served as Syrian ambassador to the U.S. and therefore, 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.

Muallem 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, Muallem knew beforehand that they were skeptical and would not believe him, whatever he said. At the same time, Muallem had to do his best to appear normal, confident and assured regarding the rhetoric he was espousing.

Media prohibition

What was funny though, was how Muallem 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 in a few situations has killed them, in addition to imposing restrictions on independent media outlets. In contrast, it has consistently mobilized pro-Assad propagandists to mislead the public and fabricate stories.

On the other hand, it was remarkable how 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.

The world watches

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 U.S. 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. This is evidenced by what is happening in the al-Raqqa province and some areas in Deir Ezzor and al-Haskah.

Today, there is a consensus that there will be a U.S. strike on Syria, while the Syrian opposition’s ambassador to France, Dr. Monzer Makhous, announced that the countdown to the U.S. 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 what size and for what reason?

Hands off

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

This means that the U.S. 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.

However, if we are to argue that Russia will turn a blind eye to the military strike and that Muallem’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 Shiite 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, it seems that the group 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.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on August 29, 2013.


Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with An-Nahar newspaper in Lebanon. Joned 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.

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