Achieving peace through strength – a good lesson for Syria’s revolt

The Ghouta chemical massacre made it clear that the Obama administration was interested in only two things regarding Syria

Eyad Abu Shakra

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Last week marked the second anniversary of the chemical weapons attacks perpetrated by the Syrian regime against the towns and villages of Eastern Ghouta near Syria’s capital, Damascus.

That day, according to reliable sources, the area covering the eastern and northeastern suburbs of the city—especially Zamalka, Ain Terma, Kfar Batna and ‘Arbeen, as well as the southern suburbs of Mu’aththamiyya and Darayya—was shelled in the early hours of the morning by rockets carrying Sarin gas – as well as other poisonous material – from army bases in the Qalamoun mountains, northwest of Damascus.

The number of casualties—most of whom were women and children—varied between 1,300 dead (the Syrian National Coalition) and 1,729 (The Free Syrian Army); while a preliminary U.S. government assessment determined that 1,429 people were killed in the chemical weapons attack, including at least 426 children. The number of those injured was estimated to exceed 3,600.

That massacre took place after another “red line” was issued to Bashar Al-Assad regime by the U.S. administration, as his government escalated its crackdown on the peaceful popular uprising, from shooting at demonstrations, to the use of heavy artillery, then resorting to the use of the air force and surface-to-surface missiles. The worse the suppression got, the faster American and Western condemnations, threats and “red lines” were issued, only to be proven empty and insincere.

The Ghouta chemical massacre made it clear that the Obama administration was interested in only two things regarding Syria

Eyad Abu Shakra

Consequently, Syrians’ anger and despair of international justice increased; and it was only natural that such a situation would destroy the case for moderation and give credence to extremism.

Indeed, as if this was the international community’s plan all along, moderates began to lose out, defections from the army, security services, and political bodies all but stopped, while extremists took over the revolt. This was the most natural outcome of the shameless betrayal of the popular revolt by the international community, and its refusal—time and time again—to genuinely support the Free Syrian Army, formed by honorable officers and soldiers who simply refused to murder their own people.

Soon enough, foreign terrorists began flocking into Syria, from all over the world, with the declared aim of “supporting (Nusra) the Syrian people” and “fighting the infidel regime that is killing Sunni Muslims with Iran’s and Russia’s weapons”. Alas, as we all know now, the very chemistry of the revolt has changed, and the ugly international conspiracy has been exposed.

Those foreign extremists—particularly Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants, who have turned their weapons on the revolt and Assad’s opponents—have now become the excuse given to Assad’s regime to continue its genocide.

Assad continuing to rule Syria

Barack Obama’s reaction to the August 2013 chemical attacks erased all doubts regarding his position. It was the landmark that proved that, contrary to all previous announcements, Washington did not mind Assad continuing to rule Syria even over the dead bodies.

That year secret talks between the U.S. and Iran were uncovered too; and since then everything in the Middle East has been snowballing.

The Ghouta chemical massacre made it clear that the Obama administration was interested in only two things regarding Syria:

First, striking a regional deal with Iran, Assad’s protector, sponsor and lifeline; and second, protecting Israel against any weapon of mass destruction that may fall in the hands of groups that—unlike Assad—may truly threaten its existence.

Thus, since any deal with Iran necessitated going back on all calls for Assad to go, Washington ignored all its previous “red lines”. Furthermore, the only practical reaction to the Ghouta chemical massacre was convincing Assad to hand over “most of” his chemical arsenal. This step was helpful both in reassuring Israel, and giving the Syrian dictator the green light to commit as many massacres as he pleases, while the U.S. was working with Russia, Iran and China, to rehabilitate him, and accept him as a partner in the global war against ISIS!

As the fight for votes on the Iran nuclear deal intensifies in the U.S. Congress, President Obama is using all means available in tempting and pressuring U.S. lawmakers. After making clear that he would stick to the deal even if Congress voted against it—surely his opponents would not muster the two-thirds majority needed to kill off the White House veto—Obama announced last week in a letter to a Congressional Democrat “that the United States would unilaterally maintain economic pressure and deploy military options if needed to deter Iranian aggression.”

Such words in the present time sound very much like the “red lines” ridiculed and killed off by the Ghouta chemical attacks. They do not differ much from the White House’s futile attempts to reassure the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries while the dimensions of the Iranian regional aggression unfold day by day—even before international sanctions against Iran are lifted—and the plan for sectarian cleansing, ethnic partitioning, and redrawing of maps gathers pace in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Expansionist war

All this means that for the foreseeable future we must expect more maneuvering, cajoling, and threats. Even after the Congress vote, expected next month, the Iran deal will be part of the U.S. presidential campaign, while unforeseen developments in Iraq and Syria may create new realities on the ground.

Still two interesting and important questions beg for answers:

First, will Washington be able to contain the repercussions of the regional chaos and disintegration if a deal-empowered Iran continues its expansionist war on its neighbors? Second, is it really true that Obama’s long-term strategy will eventually target Iran’s military capabilities and ambitions, as his defenders keep telling us?

I believe we, Arabs, must pose these two questions; but until we have convincing answers Arab countries, more so the GCC states, need to plan their priorities, and raise the level of trust among each other instead of giving their enemies gratuitous political gifts.

Surely no one at the moment is drumming up war, and no one will benefit from rejecting dialogue; however, a proper and meaningful dialogue cannot be conducted by means of arms, as the Iranian president Hassan Rowhani seems to envisage.

Last week while attending Defense Industry Day in Tehran, Rowhani, said frankly “military might was necessary to achieve peace in the volatile Middle East.”

You got it absolutely right Mr. Rowhani… Thanks for the advice!

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on August 26, 2015.

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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