The cost of keeping Assad in power

Jamal Khashoggi

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Russia "the great" has become a country practicing its international policy in a way similar to that of Iran. It surprised the world last week with an initiative that seemed serious and that was enforced by international law and the U.N. Security Council. It stipulated that the Syrian regime be wiped clean of its chemical weapons in exchange for preventing Western military intervention. Its initiative was a stance that harmonizes well with the average responsibilities of a superpower. A few days later, however, this superpower deteriorated and appeared like a small dictator skillful at lying and maneuvering.

The Iranians have mastered this policy. They call on their neighbors to cooperate and then they conspire against them. They speak of liberating Jerusalem and then occupy Lebanon. The Russians talk about saving the region and the world from Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons when in fact what they want is to save Bashar and prolong his regime's lifespan. They sabotage their relations with the world's nations and what matters to them is that Bashar stays!

No longer a secret

After the West decides to keep a distance from the Syrian conflict, we in Saudi Arabia, the wider Gulf, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, will remain within a flaring fire in the center of our Middle East

Jamal Khashoggi

It's not important to figure out how that benefits them. That's their problem. Our problem, however, is how we will live near Bashar if the Russians succeed in deceiving the Americans or if they conspire with them and the Iranians to seal a deal behind the backs of the Syrian people and the Gulf states.

In the end, after the West decides to keep a distance from the Syrian conflict, we in Saudi Arabia, the wider Gulf, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, will remain within a flaring fire in the center of our Middle East – a fire that feeds on hatred, sectarianism and injustice. What will be the true cost of this?

We must not rule out the possibility that the war may go on for years even if the alternative to America’s decisive intervention is to increase aid to the opposition. Iran, Russia and Hezbollah stand by the Syrian regime, and they are not only supporting it with arms but with fighters too. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard's participation in the Syrian war is no longer a secret. They even have commanders there on more than one front. Russia never committed to not providing the Syrian regime with arms. Therefore what we have is a recipe for a long term civil war that may last for many years. Let's keep in mind that the Lebanese Civil War lasted for 15 consecutive years.

Paying the price of Syria’s war

This possibility will have great repercussions on the region's security and stability. Hope of an Arab-Iranian consensus that makes both parties comfortable will be postponed, that is if it doesn't disappear. Chances of a confrontation will increase amid the war and rivals exchanging accusations. Reconciliation in Bahrain will be postponed, the Gulf plan of transition of power in Yemen will be obstructed and our spending on arming and security will increase.

On the local level, there's a cost on all the region's countries as a result of prolonging the war. Lebanon may be the first one to be dragged towards it. Everyone is standing at the edge waiting to be pushed towards the abyss. Those who survive will not get away from paying the huge financial cost for refugees.

What's more dangerous than that is the effect of the Syrians' long term presence on Lebanon's sectarian demographic balance agreed on by the Lebanese people since independence. Palestinian refugees threatened this balance so they were confined in camps and deprived of their right to work. They were thus the reason behind its first civil war. The question is then, how will the presence of half a million rich and poor Syrians affect Lebanon after five years?

Jordan is stronger on the security level. But Jordan too confronts a demographical threat as more refugees reside there. So far, there are 1.3 million Syrian refugees. The influx of refugees there will definitely affect Jordan's demographic and political composition. As time passes by, refugees settle in the countries of refuge. They build a life and form alliances and interests. Even if the war ends after a year or five years, some of them will stay. This has a huge cost, and Jordan has limited resources. When it comes to Jordan, one must ask how will the country be if the Syrian war lasts for five years?

Iraq will be further dragged towards the Syrian war. The situation there between its Shiite and Sunnis is tense. Even if there are rational people there attempting to decrease sectarian tensions, the war in Syria doesn't help their case. Iraqi Shiites are becoming extremists fighting alongside the Baath regime. Iraqi Sunnis are also becoming extremists fighting against the regime and the Shiites, destroying shrines and even fighting the Free Syrian Army. Iraq's Kurds are getting involved in Syria too. They support Kurds threatened by the al-Nusra Front in a war over nothing but power. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant threatens them because it hates all "others." In the end, the number of refugees will increase in Kurdistan.

In Turkey, the Syrian war has resulted in an unprecedented sectarian situation in the country. Alawite protests were held, in which demonstrators voiced their opposition against Edrogan and raised Assad's photos. For the first time, Turkey has witnessed a sectarian alignment increasing Erdogan's problems with the seculars and the Kurds. This new problem with the Alawites threatens national unity there. Perhaps declaring war on Assad has a less cost than the unprecedented divisions that will almost destroy the cabinet's achievements.

Saudi Arabia is not a country neighboring Syria. It therefore does not bear the cost for hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees. But its leadership role in the region makes it inevitable for it to bear the cost of refugees. Lebanon's and Jordan's stability supports Saudi Arabia’s stability. But despite the kingdom’s huge financial capabilities and despite its stability, the Arab Spring has become costly for it. The cost may not even come to an end.

Saudi intervention here and there may balance the path, but it does not guarantee results. And to keep going comes at a cost. Saudi currently bears the responsibility of achieving stability in Bahrain. It succeeded well here, and the cost wasn't high either. Bahrain is also an investment that serves both parties as it will benefit from Saudi Arabia and the Saudi economy will benefit from it.

But the kingdom engaged in a costly adventure in Egypt. Saudi has a strategic interest in Egypt – an interest that does not change even if the rulers there do. But Egypt is costly and in need of an economic miracle that the Egyptian government better come up with. Amid these burdens, in addition to others, the situation worsens in North Syria. The situation gets worse with the Russian-Iranian expansion and the Americans giving up on it.

What's the solution then? No one knows. Fires flare up here and there. Some were a result of wrong estimations and others were a natural result of the historical Arab Spring transformations. What matters now is that Assad be toppled and that the fire in Syria be put out before it reaches its neighbors.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Sept. 21, 2013.

Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels. Twitter: @JKhashoggi.

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