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Two critical weeks for the Mashreq

Physical and psychological warfare is raging in the Arab theatre of operations against the backdrop of Geneva II

Eyad Abu Shakra

Published: Updated:

The physical and psychological warfare raging in the Arab theatre of operations against the backdrop of the Geneva II conference may be clearly pointing to the future map of the much-talked-about New Middle East.

Several manipulative statements have come and indeed continue to come from Moscow demanding that the conference change its agenda from that of “turning the page on the regime of Bashar al-Assad” and his police state to one of waging a “war on terrorism” - in this case Sunni terrorism. This war would start in Syria and spread to the entire region, taking place in cooperation with Iran, the erstwhile ally of Russia.

Equally, whispers, leaks and maneuvers have emerged from Washington, some of which pertain to the regime in Damascus which has now been revealed to be a pawn of Iran as well as a virtual bridge between Iran and Israel. Other rumors have emerged about the efforts being made to resuscitate the moribund Palestinian–Israeli peace process.

In addition come Washington’s attempts to reassure friends and allies of the nature of the developing U.S.–Iranian relationship while continuing with all of its old policies, which only serve to raise suspicions and urge one to expect the worst. The best example of this is the U.S. speeding up of its delivery of arms to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Iraq after adamantly refraining from imposing no-fly zones over Syria.

Ill-intentioned regional strategy

What we are currently witnessing is an indication of the emergence of an ill-intentioned regional strategy which seems to be to a sequel to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and a license to Iran to further infiltrate the Mashreq and use its increasing hegemony in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as a bargaining chip in Tehran’s negotiations with Washington on the region.

What we are currently witnessing is an indication of the emergence of an ill-intentioned regional strategy which seems to be to a sequel to the 2003 invasion of Iraq

Eyad Abu Shakra

Over the next few days and weeks, the region will be preoccupied with two events, the links between which will now become more evident than ever before. The two events to which I am referring are the Geneva II conference on the Syrian conflict and the start, on Jan. 13 this year, of the proceedings of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was set up by the U.N. to bring the assassins of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to justice. The assassination of Hariri was first and foremost a politically motivated crime, seeking political aims and sending political messages. In brief, murdering Lebanon’s former prime minister was the first bullet in the Sunni–Shiite regional conflict which has been gaining pace to the point where it has now reached the level of an all-out sectarian war.

Others might argue that the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the U.S. occupier’s subsequent administration of the country, including the disruption of Iraq’s judicial, administrative and military institutions, marked the true beginning of the current sectarian strife. However, the liquidation of Hariri and the diligent annihilation of what and whom he represented is now evidently part of a bigger picture. The Syrian dimension of the Arab Spring has come to expose what had been almost completely hidden. It is now clear to the entire world that the regime of Hafez al-Assad founded in 1970 was entrusted with certain “duties” in the region. The Assad regime has been part of the calculations of several main actors with intersecting interests, offering certain services in return for pre-agreed rewards. For example, the Syrian Army’s entry to Lebanon in the 1970s was part of the task assigned to Damascus in order to strike the Palestinian resistance forces and liquidate the Lebanese National Movement (LNM); and this is exactly what the elder Assad did.

What has been taking place over the past three years in Syria under Bashar al-Assad, and the way the major regional players have dealt with the Syrian tragedy - which has turned from being a popular uprising into a religious - sectarian war with international reverberations - is truly remarkable.

From the outset, Assad has chosen to adopt two approaches: first, he confronted the uprising with maximum force and endless bloodshed. Second, he blackmailed the international community with the help of his regional and international backers. Assad has openly threatened the entire world with the eruption of the region. The purpose behind this threat is obvious, given the reality of the pluralistic demographic in Syria and the Mashreq.

International response

For a while, the international community still had a chance to rapidly adopt a decisive deterrent stance once the Syrian regime chose to respond to peaceful demonstrations with a bloody crackdown. Incidentally, one may remember that warnings about the rise of al-Qaeda were not issued only by Assad: Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi had previously resorted to such tactics himself. In fact, the Syrian regime has a long history of wheeling and dealing with al-Qaeda, its offshoots, or other like-minded groups. Even Maliki’s government, which is currently in the same boat, once accused the Assad regime of collusion with extremist groups, claiming that Damascus was facilitating one such group’s entry into Iraq in order to fight U.S. forces.

This now looks to be a part of Iran’s shrewd plan to benefit from Washington’s war to remove Saddam Hussein and the Sunni leadership, thus empowering the Shiites to grab hold of Iraq. The plan also included harassing the occupation forces in order to force them to withdraw. At this point, the Assad regime’s contribution became positive and direct, after coming to an understanding with Tehran, among others. The withdrawal of the U.S. forces was the culmination of Washington’s recognition of Iran’s influence in the Middle East.

It is true Russia had a role in executing the plan; however, Moscow’s role was more often exploitative and troublesome than it was strategic and constant. Tehran does not consider itself to be a strategic ally of Moscow. However, the two states do not mind coordinating their efforts to frustrate a Washington retreating from the region and preoccupied with other international concerns.

Terrible escalation

The terrible escalation in Syria has followed agreement by the superpowers that the only solution available is a peaceful one. The Assad regime is keen to weaken and fragment the Syrian opposition before Geneva II. Following the eruption of the war among the factions opposed to Assad - after it became clear how dangerous the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and some other extremist factions were in light of the marginalization of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) - the international community allowed itself to be convinced that Assad remaining in power (and, by extension, handing the security of the region over to Iran) could be better for the West than the emergence of a new al-Qaeda hotbed on the borders of Israel. We have even heard voices loudly singing this same tune in Washington.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, Maliki’s government now stands accused of instigating a war in the Sunni stronghold of Anbar province under the pretext of fighting ISIS. The emergence of the al-Qaeda-linked group in Fallujah and Ramadi has supported Maliki’s claims and given credence to his policies, although they have come under increasing criticism from all sides in the Iraqi political spectrum - not only the Arab Sunnis.

The assassinations and deadly bombings in Beirut have also made a comeback just before the trials of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which has already accused five of Hezbollah’s members of murdering Hariri. Meanwhile, ISIS officially announced its entry onto the exhausted scene in Lebanon by claiming responsibility for last week’s car bomb in Beirut’s Shi’ite southern suburb. That announcement, which may find some justification from the inflamed passions of the Sunni public, is in fact a golden opportunity for Hezbollah, which aspires to be granted an international mandate to protect the region’s minorities as well as the borders with Israel. A situation like this surely would relegate the Special Tribunal to history.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Jan. 10, 2014.

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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.

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