The Foreign Confrontation in Syria

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Syrian refugees hold a demonstration in favour of Turkey at a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Boynuegin in Hatay province. (Photo: REUTERS - Osman Orsal)

By: Ibrahim al-Amin

Published Thursday, October 20, 2011

The US administration’s urging of Arab states to take steps to tighten the diplomatic and economic noose on Syria comes in tandem with its decision to ratchet up its confrontation – thus far only political – with Iran. Diplomats say Turkey too has upped the ante, and is now playing a covert security role inside Syrian territory in support of the revolt against the rule of President Bashar Assad.

The US, France, Turkey, and other parties in Europe and the Arab Gulf pre-emptively began supplying the adhesive needed to bind together the fragmented Syrian opposition groups based abroad. These were conjoined in the framework of the Syrian National Council. Despite the protestations of the Council’s most prominent spokesman, Burhan Ghalioun (see his recent interview in Al-Akhbar), its members appear to hold mutually incompatible views regarding Syria’s political future. This applies particularly to the role they want external powers to play in overthrowing Assad’s regime.

Meanwhile in Lebanon, the principal players in the March 14 coalition have reverted to the climate which prevailed in the country in 2005. They believe that the regime in Syria is on its way out. Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea say that, from the evidence on the ground and their own assessments, the decision to bring down Assad’s regime has been taken by the powers-that-be. They maintain that the decision has also been taken to ‘strike’ Iran, and that this is now being pursued in various ways pending a major thrust. This, for them, justifies sticking to the line that the Syrian regime must be isolated and Lebanon prevented from becoming a source of political, security, or even economic relief for Syria.

But what has the other side been up to?

From the Syrian leadership’s point of view, things look somewhat different. Assad tells his visitors that he remains in contact with some Arab leaders and has had telephone conversations with them – specifically naming the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin-Khalifa Al Thani. Other sources indicate that the Qatari ruler has begun diplomatic contacts with Iran and Turkey aimed at containing regional tensions as they pertain to Syria, Bahrain, and Iranian-Arab relations. These sources say that Qatar fears the situation could get out of control and spiral into a ruinous, all-out confrontation.

It is clear from the behavior of the Syrian authorities that they now feel they have passed the danger-stage for the regime and have begun a new stage where the danger is to the country’s stability. This aspect appears complex. Syrian leaders concede that, in addition to an internal security effort, the restoration of genuine stability would require political steps. That means speeding up the process of reform in order to defuse domestic tensions. But a political accommodation would also be needed with various external actors, notably Turkey and the Arab Gulf states. Syrian officials accuse Turkish and Arab intelligence agencies of sponsoring an organized campaign of destabilization inside Syrian territory. Such a deal would entail halting these activities, and also the political and media campaigns these countries have been waging against the regime in Syria.

Iran, for its part, seems intent on continuing to provide unlimited support to the regime in Syria. The visible part of that support is Iran’s commitment to preventing any foreign intervention, especially military intervention, against Syria. It has become common knowledge that the Iranians have told various regional and international players that they would deem an attack on Syria to be an attack on Iran, and this would unavoidably lead to an huge confrontation. These warnings had a direct impact on the Turks, among others.

But the Iranians have also been discussing other things behind the scenes. Their ongoing and intensive consultations with the Syrian leadership have also covered details of its plans for economic and political reform. According to the Iranians, Tehran has made clear to Assad that reform is vital – for the country, the regime, and the people alike. They say they are well aware of the extent of the regime’s accumulated mistakes, both before and since the outbreak of the confrontations. But they call for distinctions to be made.

For example, the Iranians do not consider Syria’s foreign detractors to be acting out of support for human rights or the cause of reform. They argue that the position of all of these countries, near and far, can only be understood in terms of settling old scores with Syria and seeking to remove it from the pro-resistance camp in the region.

The Iranians also say that the Syrian administration suffers from serious deficiencies in every respect. Assad himself knows and admits this, and has been trying for a long time — not just now — to take on these challenges. But the Iranians agree with Assad that the process of change in Syria will be slow. There are figures within the regime who reject the very idea of change, and they do not believe that anything needs to be done in this regard. They pose a real obstacle to Assad, far harder to overcome than many believe.

The Iranians are also supporting Syria economically. They say they are providing the country with all it needs to face its economic crisis and revive productive sectors of the economy. There are now over 100 vital projects throughout the country operating with Iranian support. Iranian sources note, too, that their country is well placed to help Syria find solutions to get around any kind of economic sanctions imposed by the West.

Ibrahim al-Amin is editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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