By Riad Kahwaji
Syrian rebels have learned, as all their Arab allies have, that it is very hard to be an ally of Western democracies, especially when your adversary is a brutal dictatorship allied with authoritarian regimes. It does not always pay off to be an ally of democracies like the United States or the United Kingdom when you are fighting the Syrian regime that has very loyal and generous allies who have applied full strength to its preservation far beyond supportive rhetoric. Tehran and its Lebanese ally Hizbullah have sent the Syrian regime weapons, advisors, funds and troops to help crush the popular uprising that has turned into a civil war.
British Prime Minister David Cameron backtracked on previously far-reaching pledges of support, harsh criticism of Assad’s regime and lobbied to lift a European Union ban on arming the rebels. Once the ban was lifted he quickly discovered he does not have the backing within his parliament and military to follow through. So, instead of ending the debate there, he and his aides went on to tell the Syrian rebels they are fighting a lost cause and Bashar Assad will likely survive. The French were more discrete and opted to stop talking about it rather than make such demoralizing statements to the Syrian rebels. After lengthy meetings with Syrian opposition and rebel commanders on July 24, Paris just reasserted its humanitarian and political aid to the Syrian revolution without any mention of military aid.
Meanwhile U.S. President Barack Obama continues to study a series of options provided by his own military on what could be done in Syria, while the Congress and other U.S. agencies have to debate any proposed idea of sending military aid and subject it to indefinite checks and balances. No rush, it is just that the United Nations is now estimating that 5,000 people are killed each month in Syria, with the death toll exceeding 100,000 people since the uprising began in March 2011. The Chief of Staff of the main rebel force, Free Syrian Army (FSA), Maj. Gen. Salim Edriss was quoted as saying on July 25 that he has all but given up on receiving military aid from the West. He noted that assurances and guarantees given by the FSA that the weapons will not go to extremist groups were not apparently good enough for the West.
If one takes a step back to assess the broader picture, it should not be surprising to find many Arabs, even a few high-ranking officials, who believe in the conspiracy theory that talks about a grand scheme by the West, Israel, Russia and Iran to destroy the Arab world is ongoing. The story in coffee shops in many Arab countries revolves around the following main points: First, it was Iraq with the U.S. invasion that was followed by the Iranian political takeover of Baghdad, then Egypt with back-to-back revolutions that have sharply split the society, and now Syria with the West pledging support and seducing the rebels into believing aid was on its way, as was the case in Libya, but then to continue repeating platitudes while the Iranians supply the regime in Damascus with everything it needs. These events are occurring while delegations from the U.S. and EU continue to visit the region wondering why Arab governments do not have the same level of confidence in the West as once before and why they are losing business to rising powers in the East.
All of the incidents mentioned above reassert the belief among many officials in the Arabian Gulf that they made the right decision to intervene in Bahrain when they did, “otherwise Bahrain would now be under Tehran’s control,” said one Gulf official. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) invoked its defense cooperation treaty and sent troops to help Manama quell mass riots. The GCC believes that disturbances in Bahrain were carried out by Iranian agents to undermine the ruling monarchy. Washington had initially objected to the GCC intervention but quickly softened its rhetoric.
The GCC has announced its full support to the Syrian revolution and some Gulf countries are providing funds and arms to the rebels. GCC assistance is what helped the rebels stay in the fight and not the empty promises from European capitals and Washington. Now the West speaks about the threat of Al-Qaeda and fundamentalist groups that infiltrated the Syrian rebels and caution about arms falling into the “wrong hands.” But they forget that the absence of genuine military aid from so-called allies to the rebels was what created the vacuum of support which the extremist groups where more than glad to fill in Syria. Now instead of offering real military aid to encourage the rebels to oust the fundamentalist groups, they tell them no arms, kick out those helping you first, and by the way, you have no chance against the Syrian regime. This sentiment proves that the West lacks a unified strategy on Syria while Iran and its allies do: Provide unlimited military and financial support to allow the Syrian regime to maintain control over large chunks of the country that would enable it to go strong to any peace talks in Geneva whenever it happens and negotiate a deal that would ensure its survival.
However, some Western officials whisper behind closed doors that the inaction by the West could be part of a strategy, but a strategy to achieve what? The only outcome of such a strategy is regional chaos with the total destruction of Syria and an all-out Sunni-Shiite war with Al-Qaeda rooted in Syria. A key factor the West must recognize is a large part of the Arab world, and especially the GCC, have high bets on the rebels and the current military aid to them will very likely continue. Many within the GCC seem to regard Western calls for non-intervention in Syria similar to the ones made for Bahrain: very suspicious and conspiratorial. They simply cannot understand how the West can call itself an ally and then sit back and watch what Iran and Hizbullah are doing in Syria. So whatever strategy the West might have in Syria it is clearly not in line with that of its Arab allies. The West’s current course of action, or inaction, in Syria will impact Washington’s relations with its Arab allies. As one GCC official said at the time of the Libyan and Bahraini crises: “We (U.S., EU and GCC) are either allies in everything or we are not.” The Syrian-Iranian-Hizbullah axis is proving to be solid and firm. Will the Western commitment to their Arab allies prove as solid? Many hope that recent steps taken by the U.S. military command can move Washington in time to pull together the needed Western efforts to get on the same page with their Arab allies in aiding the Syrian rebels. In Syria today, time is blood.
Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA