Cool Syria to focus on Afghanistan in Chicago
Remember, it is President Barak Obama’s political requirement to have a calm Middle East so that he can keep a steady gaze on Afghanistan, the country on which the NATO summit in Chicago must focus in May in ways that it is useful for his re-election in November, writes Saeed Naqvi
LET me jump the gun on the global pundits. The great charge on Damascus is about to be called off, sorry, toned down.
Why is the Syrian story taking this turn? For several reasons.
There is a tide in the affairs of nations. This tide, for good or bad, was speedily taken at a flood in Libya primarily by the French and the British, egged on by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Americans came late but Hillary Clinton will be remembered for her remark in Tripoli. ‘I came, I saw and he died.’ This, when Gaddafi had been murdered in the most ghastly fashion, sodomised by a knife, then shot. Or was he shot first?
Whatever Libya’s future (who cares?), the expedition was launched with lightening speed. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which has sent a punitive bill to Riyadh and Qatar, did a fine job, quite worth the rental.
In the flush of victory at Tripoli, the victorious gang thought of replicating it in Damascus. The two situations could not have been more dissimilar.
The ruling cliques in the Arab world hated Gaddafi because he taunted them as poodles of the West. It was this kind of bluster that caused the Saudi king to scream at him across the table at an Arab summit at Sharm el-Sheikh: ‘Kalb’, which means dog!
Gaddafi was unique because he was the only point of convergence for Riyadh and Tehran. The Iranians disliked him for two reasons: he competed with them, often upping the ante on the Palestinian issue which the Iranians would rather keep as their monopoly. Above all, the Iranians nursed a grievance on the disappearance of Shia cleric Musa Sadr over Libya in the 1980s.
After Ben Ali and Mubarak had fallen and Yemen and Bahrain were in convulsions, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia returned after medical treatment in Europe and saw an unrecognisably altered neighbourhood. He was furious that Ben Ali and Mubarak had been allowed to go and swore that not a single monarchy or sheikhdom will be allowed to fall, ‘people’s power’ be damned!
At this stage the Israeli stand was: ‘since 1973 our border with Syria has been the most peaceful.’
It was Riyadh, now holding Qatar’s hand as well, which persuasively developed two plots.
Israel’s Iranian focus will dim unless the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas nexus is broken by wrenching Syria away from the quartet.
Secondly, Shias had to be projected as a threat to mobilise the Sunni Arab world on a sectarian plank. Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Kuwait all had huge Shia populations. Iraq and Bahrain had overwhelming Shia majorities.
In this theme, too, there was a Syrian angle. Although the Alawis and Christians formed only 20 per cent of the population (the majority being Sunnis), they formed the bulk of the army. In their belief (very tepid belief because primarily they are secular Baathists), they are more like Shias and this has been something of an irritant to the majority Sunnis which occasionally erupts as in Hama in 1982 and stoked elsewhere more recently.
In the absence of a Security Council resolution, the strategy of lending external support to malcontents in the country has proved time consuming. Also, French, Qatari and Turkish officers have been held well inside Syrian territory, much to the embarrassment Paris, Ankara and Qatar.
Notice, there is total silence from French officials. In the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Saudis are probably not exerting as much pressure. Otherwise, why would the United Arab Emirates intercede with Damascus for the release of Qataris?
Lack of progress on the Syrian front has been accompanied by the anti-Iranian rhetoric rising to a crescendo. The ‘attack Iran’ chant has one effect on the GCC sheikhdoms: buy more defensive weapons, at the same time seek back channel peace.
Gradually, it may well be sinking into the Riyadh establishment that continuous TV attention on Syrian protesters could well be the cause of aggravated public anger in Bahrain and oil-rich, Shia-dominated areas like Qatif in Saudi Arabia.
Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan’s recent meetings in Tehran with supreme leader Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad must be seen to be bringing down regional temperatures.
Remember, it is President Barak Obama’s political requirement to have a calm Middle East so that he can keep a steady gaze on Afghanistan, the country on which the NATO summit in Chicago must focus in May in ways that it is useful for his re-election in November.
Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist and distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.
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