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A week of hellish annual remembrances in Egypt, Syria

A year later, the victims and their memory are being dishonored

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

This is a week of hellish annual remembrances. One year ago, more than 1,400 people in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus perished after struggling mightily to breathe, writhing in excruciating pain, after being bombed with sarin gas by their own government. Days earlier, in the distant streets of Cairo, Egypt at least 1,150 demonstrators were horrifically killed by live bullets at close range, also by their own government.

Both remorseless attacks were premeditated and carried out methodically and in cold blood. The attackers were secure in the knowledge that they will escape retribution. And they were right. Both attacks will live in infamy. The chemical attack in Ghouta was the worst of its kind since the Assad regime began its systematic campaign to eliminate its domestic opponents.

The violent crackdown in Rabaa al-Adawiya was by far the bloodiest day in the modern history of Egypt. The men who ordered the attacks, Assad of Syria and Sisi of Egypt are still in power, a sickening testament to the resilient brutality of Arab autocrats and despots and the total absence of political and moral accountability in Arab societies.

What is most jarring about the two men now, is that Sisi’s metamorphosis from a coup leader to a legitimate president has been complete, with the stamp of approval from the Obama administration, and Assad finds that his savagery is being overlooked by a growing number of “realists” who roam the hallways of America’s think tanks, and among columnists and former officials who are calling for a tacit alliance with him to fight the new monstrous entity in the region the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS.

A year of living in impunity

A year later, the victims and their memory are being dishonored. In a brazen act, a spokesperson for Egypt’s foreign ministry claimed that his government is closely following the protests in Ferguson, a suburb of the city of St. Louis, MO over the killing of a young unarmed African American by a white policeman, adding that Egypt “called on U.S. authorities to exercise restraint and deal with the protests in accordance with U.S. and international standards.” The contemptuous statement came just days after the anniversary of the slaughter at Rabaa, and days after Egyptian authorities refused to allow Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth to enter Egypt to brief journalists and diplomats in Cairo on HRW’s report on the bloody crackdown in July and August 2013. In the months that followed Rabaa, the U.S. has agonized publicly and privately over the military coup in Egypt and reluctantly imposed a limited arms embargo. But with the passage of time, and with Egypt’s continuing struggle against violent Islamists in Sinai as well as in the streets of major cities, arm shipments were resumed, while the pro forma talk in Washington about Egypt’s return to the democratic track kept diminishing steadily.

A year later, the victims and their memory are being dishonored

Hisham Melhem

In the year that followed the chemical attack on Ghouta, the number of casualties in Syria doubled and has topped 191,000 according to U.N. rights Chief Navi Pillay. Among the dead were 9,000 children, she said and her team stressed that up to 6,000 people were dying in Syria every month. (It was estimated that 7,000 Bosnian Muslims were massacred at Srebrenica in 1995) These horrific statistics mean that Syria is suffering almost a Srebrenica scale massacre every month. In the summer of 2013 President Obama, instead of delivering on his promise to punish the Assad regime militarily, struck a deal with Russia to rid Syria of its stockpile of chemical weapons. The agreement not only saved Assad and his regime, but made his remaining in power imperative to carry out the agreement that was hailed by the Obama administration as a great victory.

Obama’s sheathed sword

Secure in the knowledge that the American sword has been sheathed (Assad understands and fears the old Arab dictum that says: you don’t unsheathe your sword unless you intend to use it) Assad doubled down and cemented his military cooperation with Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite volunteers with the blessing of outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri el-Maliki and intensified his savage barrel bomb campaign against civilian targets in rebel held areas, particularly in Aleppo. He increased his medieval-like campaign of laying siege to cities and towns to starve them into submission. In Arabic this campaign is called التركيع او التجويع “kneel or starve”. In Arabic, they rhyme. For the first time since the First World War people in Syria, particularly the children were dying of malnutrition. The international community oscillated between issuing condemnations and silence.

A Faustian deal?

Even before the hordes of ISIS swept into northwestern Iraq last June, occupying Mosul and threatening Erbil, a number of former officials, notably ambassador Ryan Crocker, researchers at think tanks and columnists began to peddle the notion that Assad may be in charge of a criminal regime, but he is the lesser evil in Syria, and if we wanted to maintain Syria as unitary state and also defeat the Islamists, we have to enter into a tacit alliance with Assad, despicable as this may be. Writing in December 2013 in the New York Times, Crocker who had a stellar career as ambassador to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon said “it is time to consider a future for Syria without Assad’s ouster, because it is overwhelmingly likely that is what the future will be.” Crocker now is calling on the U.S. to launch airstrikes against ISIS fighters in Syria as well as in Iraq.

The proponent of this view claims that Assad does not constitute today nor did he in the past an imminent danger to the U.S. They say that his so-called secular credentials (he wears western suits, speaks some English and married to a wife known for her obsession with expensive haute couture) in addition to the well- known Assad dynasty’s violent opposition to the Islamists, make him a useful, even if repugnant ally. Therefore, a Faustian deal with Assad even if limited or temporary is imperative.

Assad’s bloody legacy

This motley crew of academics and former officials and self-appointed experts on the Middle East and the Islamists, conveniently overlook Assad’s alleged role in sending many jihadists through Syrian borders to kill American soldiers in Iraq, and his well-known record in destabilizing Lebanon, and providing aid and support to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and serving as Iran’s linchpin in the Eastern Mediterranean, all of which do not serve America’s interests. There are also the operational limitations that make such a deal unattractive. Assad does not have enough forces he can rely on to deploy in Northern and Eastern Syria, to retake them from ISIS, and most importantly holding them.

The Syrians should not be caught indefinitely between the Scylla of ISIS and the Charybdis of Assad

Hisham Melhem

Moreover, Assad played an important role in nurturing ISIS and coordinating implicitly and in a de facto sense with ISIS and benefitted from the war ISIS waged against the Free Syrian Army and the other Islamists groups fighting him. Even when ISIS controlled the provincial capital at Raqqa, taking the battle to ISIS was never a priority for Assad, who benefitted from the rise of the extreme jihadists to bolster his narrative that he is fighting radical Islamist terrorism and he deserves Western support.

A Faustian deal with Assad will reinforce the already deep Sunni skepticism in President Obama’s intentions, and will alienate many Syrians from the U.S. and may drive them to the arms of the jihadists. Finally the proponent of cooperation with Assad, whose depredations in Syria amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity are essentially telling Syrians, Egyptians and other Arabs by extension, that they are condemned to live in perpetuity either under the boots of military officers and fake “secular” autocrats like Assad, or under the brutal atavistic rule of various groups of Islamists.

In search of a policy

From the beginning of the uprising, the Obama administration’s approach to Syria was marred by wishful thinking, misunderstanding of the regime’s tenacity and savagery and misrepresenting the rebellion and finally by timidity, dithering and contradictions. Initially, officials at the National Security Council naively believed that there is no reason for the U.S. to intervene in Syria on the side of the peaceful protestors, because the “street” will sweep Assad away the way Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt were driven out of office in mostly peaceful uprisings. When the Assad regime played on the sectarian fissures and militarized the conflict, President Obama came up with his (in)famous statement, this is "somebody else's civil war."

President Obama in the view of many an expert on Syria, made a major blunder, and may have contributed to the rise of the radical Islamists when he rejected in 2012 the advice of some of his senior advisors to arm the Syrian nationalists, mostly defectors from Syria’s armed forces. Later on, under pressure from within and from the region, and with evidence that Assad was using chemical weapons (before the Ghouta attack) Obama agreed to provide limited military aid to ”moderate” rebels.

In the meantime there were those in the administration who did not mind Syria becoming a theater of death where the unsavory forces of Iran, Hezbollah and other Shiite volunteers are battling off-shoots of al-Qaeda and other assortments of extremist Sunni jihadists. President Obama was at his most disingenuous when he mischaracterized the Syrian conflict as “a professional army that is well-armed and sponsored by two large states (Russia and Iran)… fighting a farmer, a carpenter, and engineer, who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict.” President Obama’s conflicting views on Syria came into sharp relief when he told the New York Times recently that the idea of arming the Syrian rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy.” This is from the same president who had asked congress a few weeks earlier for $500 million to train and equip Syrian moderate rebels.

Syria: Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis

In Greek mythology Scylla and Charybdis were mythical sea monsters cited by Homer in the epic "The Odyssey.” The two monsters were on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina. Scylla was a six-headed sea monster and Charybdis was a whirlpool. And because they were very close, they posed almost a deadly threat to the ships passing through the strait. Homer had Odysseus sailing closer to the monster Scylla and losing few sailors, rather than lose the whole ship in the whirlpool. Today, the Syrians are caught between the Scylla of ISIS and the Charybdis of Assad.

Navigating between the two monsters will require leadership dexterity and skills, perfect sailing conditions, excellent crew and a powerful ship. The only choice for the Syrians is to sail through the strait and put both monsters behind. A lot will depend on the rebels and their ability to reorganize themselves even in their current weak conditions. It is not too late to save the ship and train the crew and chose the Syrian Odysseus.

It is nihilistic to tell or expect the Syrians to choose one of the monsters, when they know in advance that either one will devour them. The United States and its allies (maybe including some in the region) will have to intervene to prevent Syria from falling into the hands of ISIS and other militants, but the best way of guaranteeing this outcome is to support those Syrian nationalists who were fighting the monster who committed the monstrosities that contributed to the creation of ISIS in the first place.

The world has seen recently the depravities of ISIS in Iraq. These depravities are frightening even though the Islamic State is not a state in the traditional meaning of the word and still lacks some of the systematic institutions of coercion. The Syrian state, over the last three and a half years has used its institutions of coercion to the fullest, reducing great and famed cities to wastelands, and in the process uprooting almost 9 million people. Assad’s crimes are the systematic crimes of state machinery, and they dwarf ISIS’ crimes in both Syria and Iraq. But in the end, the Syrians should not be caught indefinitely between the Scylla of ISIS and the Charybdis of Assad.

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Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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