The US and the Syrian Uprising
Books will be written about the US’s handling of the Arab uprisings. They will stress the hypocrisy and deception that characterized US President Barack Obama’s administration attitude toward Arab uprising.
The US was taken aback by the uprising in Tunisia (is the US foreign policy establishment ever not taken aback with developments in the Middle East?) and it stuck with former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Once Ben Ali abandoned the country and set off to Saudi Arabia, Obama found the courage to call on him to step down. In Egypt, the Obama administration attitude was even more brazen and shameful. The spokesperson of the US State Department – it will be remembered – called on protesters to desist from using violence.
The US did not want to abandon former President Hosni Mubarak and stuck with him after he killed hundreds of people. The Israeli and Saudi governments were pressuring Obama to stick by Mubarak but he did not need any convincing. After all, the Sadat-Mubarak dictatorship was set up, armed, and funded by the US. He was not a rogue dictator. He was a dictator under US control.
But the US government looks out for its interests. It read the crowd in Tahrir Square. It tried to save Mubarak without Mubarak (as it did in Yemen with GCC support). The US came up with an idea to respond to popular demands in Egypt (the demands were for the overthrow of the regime). It suggested that Omar Suleiman – the head of the secret police, as it used to be called in yesteryears – take over the government from Mubarak. To be sure, the man was loathed by the Egyptian people but he was deeply trusted by the Israelis.
That plan did not work out and the Egyptian people pressed on. Only then, did the US government realize that it wouldn’t be able to control Egypt like before. It was then that the US coordinated with Saudi Arabia and Qatar to mount the Arab counter-revolution.
In Syria, the situation was different. Here was the only Arab regime – a dictatorship like the rest – that was not under the control of the US.
Syria was not a principled “rejectionist” government as its Arab champions would try to make it seem. It spearheaded the (token) Arab military effort to legitimize the American war for Kuwait (and US imperial interests, of course) in 1991. Syria worked for years with the US on intelligence matters and it provided crucial assistance whenever the US turned to Syria (or Jordan or Morocco or Egypt) for effective torture techniques on difficult prisoners. The two countries worked closely together after Sep. 11. On the Arab-Israeli conflict, Syria did not oppose the ill-cited Saudi peace plan which promised (how could dictatorship speak on behalf of the oppressed people?) full normalization in return for a mini-(non)state in the West Bank and Gaza.
But the US position on Syria remains ambiguous. The US and Israel (Qatar and Saudi Arabia are mere enforcers of the US will, they are not real decision makers) want the Syrian regime to be weakened to the point that it will accept Israeli dictates.
But it is not yet clear that either Israel or the US want the regime to fall. The regime has been extremely helpful in providing a secure border for Israel. And it is so non-troublesome vis-à-vis Israel that it won’t even respond in any way to Israeli bombings and assassinations deep inside Syrian territory. It wants to stay in a state of actual peace with Israel because the preservation of the regime means much more to the Assad clan than the restoration of Syrian sovereignty over Israeli-occupied lands.
Syria is very strict in its handling of Palestinian organizations in Syria: they are banned from planning or executing military operations against Israel from Syrian territory. US and Israel are also aware that the true nature of the next regime is not really clear, as the chairperson of the joint chiefs of staff indicated last week. Yes, there are Ikhwan and exiles. But, if the US learned anything from Iraq, it is that the exile groups will not necessarily have a foothold in the country once the regime is overthrown. The collapse of the regime may bring about a situation where the borders with Israel become porous.
So, despite US rhetoric about Syria, one should remain skeptical about US intentions toward the Syrian regime. President Bashar Assad is still looking for a deal under the table, preferably a deal that has US support. He would be willing to offer concessions (to Israel) in order to stay in power. Furthermore, the US and Israel still have a preference for a dictatorship: one should not be surprised if the best case scenario for both is the Assad regime without Bashar.
The Syrian people should know that they only can count on themselves. The multiplicity of roles inside Syria raises questions about the intentions of both rival camps fighting over Syria. Neither camp has the best interest of the Syrian people at heart. Yet, the Obama administration continues to claim to be moved by the plight of the Syrian people. Such sentiments are not symptomatic of super powers like the US.
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