Iran’s pack of lies

This column was printed in Arab News on September 17, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

With the Haj pilgrimage just successfully completed in Makkah with no serious injuries this year, without any Iranian pilgrims, and with Saudi Arabia successfully fighting to stop Iranian domination of Syria and Yemen from taking place, the Iranian government has decided once again to lash out at the Kingdom.

In a shocking and sickening opinion piece for the New York Times this week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif calls on the world to rid the world of “Wahhabism,” using a term that we Saudis have rejected for decades. He falsely claims that Saudi money funds such extremist groups as Daesh and the Nusra Front in Syria. The whole article would be laughable if not for the sinister tone pervading it. Indeed, a British friend of mine was horrified at the piece, telling me that it sounded as if the Iranians were calling for the genocide of all Saudis.

Indeed it is highly ironic that a country that has vowed to export its Islamic Revolution since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, is now accusing Saudis of exporting conflict and death. Everyone is well aware that the Iranians were behind the formation of the Hezbollah guerilla group in Lebanon; and that their support of the Assad regime in Syria has caused the death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians in the civil war there, now in its fifth year.

Zarif brings up the old canard of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US as “proof” that Saudi Arabia is bent on attacking everyone. But the 9/11 Commission report found that no Saudi official gave support to the hijackers. Then he accuses Saudi money of funding extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh. The Saudi government has said that some misguided individuals may have donated money to these groups and even fought for them, but that does not mean the government supports them. Far from it. Al-Qaeda and Daesh are deadly enemies of the majority of law-abiding Saudis, with both groups responsible for a string of bloody terror attacks in the country that have claimed many lives.

Zarif claims that the Kingdom is confronting Iran in all of the Middle East in order to contain Iran. That he got right. If there is one country in the region that is fanning the flames of sectarianism it is Iran with its support of Shiite militias in Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. He falsely claims that Saudi Arabia pines for the return to the days when Saddam Hussein was live and in power. Saudis are not sentimental for the past, but that does not mean that they will sit quietly and allow Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen run roughshod over Sunni communities.

After all, everyone with a few brain cells realizes that the overthrow of Saddam in 2003 brought in a Shiite-majority government backed by Iran with militias that have killed, intimidated, tortured, extorted, blackmailed, kidnapped and summarily executed thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians because of their sect. Even the Saudi ambassador to Baghdad has been the target of threats from Shiite militias in Iraq, who have said they would kill him.

Zarif also brings up the old accusation that the Kingdom has exported an intolerant version of Islam by funding the building of mosques and Islamic centers for Muslim communities around the world. This is patently untrue. Here in Brazil, the Kingdom has helped fund more than 50 mosques since the 1970s, most of them staffed by Egyptian imams. No extremist Muslim groups have popped up here, except for a few terrorist suspects that were arrested in July and who were influenced by Daesh through the Internet and not in local mosques.

It is cynical of Zarif to suggest at the end of his screed that the Kingdom can be part of the solution of tackling radical Islam, as if we need his permission or blessing to fight against the misguided monsters of Daesh and Al-Qaeda.

The Kingdom has never been against the Iranian people, but it will not stand still and allow the Iranian government to run roughshod over Sunni communities throughout the Arab world. Cooler heads need to prevail in Tehran to stop the current clash between the two sides, which may ignite into a conflagration much larger than the current one.

http://www.arabnews.com/node/985506/saudiarabia

Tehran gains more leeway for meddling

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.

This column was printed in Arab News on Jan. 24, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The lifting of nearly all the economic sanctions against Iran last week was celebrated worldwide as a victory of American and European diplomacy. A victory because Iran has accepted the need to downgrade its nuclear energy program and has pledged to no longer try to develop nuclear weapons.

From Washington to Paris and Moscow, political leaders are patting themselves on their backs as saviors of world peace for having gotten the Iranians to accept their demands and sign the agreement. But they left out of the document a crucial part of what causes most of the tensions in the Middle East: The insistent Iranian meddling in the internal affairs of several Arab countries. Americans admit this failure, but insist that they could not include it in the agreement because of Iran’s objections.

With the lifting of sanctions, it is estimated that Iran will now have access to $100 billion of its own money, which was frozen in bank accounts abroad for years. This will leave the country with more resources to continue its interference in the Arab world. From Iraq to Lebanon, Syria and even in Yemen, the fingers of the Iranians are everywhere, arming and providing economic and political support to the Iraqi government and its Shiite militias; to Hezbollah; to the government of the dictator Bashar Assad, and to Houthi rebels.

In Syria alone it is estimated that the Iranian government has injected billions of dollars in support of the Assad government, and up to 3,000 soldiers of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard are fighting there against the Syrian rebels.

In an article in the New York Times this week, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir insisted that the Kingdom and its Gulf allies will continue to resist Iranian expansion in the region and respond with force to acts of aggression from Tehran.

“The Iranian government’s behavior has been consistent since the 1979 revolution,” wrote Al-Jubeir. “The constitution that Iran adopted states the objective of exporting revolution. As a consequence, Iran has supported violent extremist groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and sectarian militias in Iraq. (…) It is clear why Iran wants Bashar Assad of Syria to remain in power: In its 2014 report on terrorism, the State Department wrote that Iran considers Syria ‘as a crucial causeway to the its weapons supply route to Hezbollah,’” he added.

The cynicism of the agreement with Iran was echoed by many Saudi analysts. “Khamenei (the religious leader of Iran) traded a bomb he did not have for a document that gives carte blanche to the Revolutionary Guard in the region and stripped the P5 + 1 of any influence over Iran,” Mohammed Alyahya told the British newspaper Guardian.

“Riyadh has decided not to allow Iran to posture itself as the protector of the Shiites in the Arab world as it has been doing since 1979,” wrote Emirati professor Abdulkhaleq Abdulla in Gulf News. “They (the Saudis) have had enough of Iran’s bullying, and genuinely feel they are being targeted by Tehran as much as by Daesh.”

And the Iranians themselves are now admitting that with the end of economic sanctions, the country will have more money available to help its allies in the region. An Iranian security official told the Reuters news agency that funding for the Revolutionary Guard and its international arm, the Quds Force, would increase.

“It is clear that our leaders will not hesitate to allocate more funds for the Revolutionary Guard when needed. More money (available) means more funds for the Guard,” another Iranian official told Reuters.

Saudi Arabia is seeing a new and decisive leadership in Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, who took the throne in January 2015.

The military intervention in Yemen, led by the Saudis to contain the spread of the Houthi rebels, has lasted over 10 months and we show no sign of withdrawing from the conflict. Internally, reacting to the very low price of oil on the international market, our government increased the price of gasoline in December 2015 and, soon after, also increased the tariffs for electricity and water.

This new tough stance of the Saudis will not let the Iranians continue to present themselves to the world as innocents in the region. It is estimated that last year Iran executed a thousand people accused of various crimes. This is much more than the 150 that were executed in the Kingdom last year. From the outside, Iran may seem to be a more progressive country than Saudi Arabia, but behind the scenes it is the ayatollahs who hold power. And it is in Iran where government supporters still chant “Death to America! The United States is the Great Satan,” and not in Saudi Arabia.

http://www.arabnews.com/columns/news/869781

Don’t let the terrorists win

Pariss-Cnn-attacks

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The horrific terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday night that left around 127 people dead, and more than 200 wounded, was a bloodbath of epic proportions. The Bataclan Theater, where a heavy metal concert was in progress when terrorists burst in firing with semi-automatic weapons, was the scene of the worst violence. According to survivors, the gunmen ran in shouting “This is for Syria!” and continued shooting into the crowd of spectators, reloading their guns several times as they ran out of bullets.
A couple of suicide bombers also blew themselves up outside the National Stadium in northern Paris while France played a friendly match against Germany. Two loud bangs could be heard by spectators of the game, but except for a short pause the game itself continued and the crowd was not informed of what was happening.
French President Francois Hollande was watching the match in the stadium, but after the explosions outside the venue he was quickly whisked away by his security. French police say that eight attackers were killed or blew themselves up around Paris in Friday’s carnage.
A French journalist speaking on BBC TV noted that three things important to French citizens were attacked on Friday night: Sports, music and cafés. Some misguided people blamed the Paris attacks on the Syrian refugees that have been flooding into Europe.
US Rep. Jeff Duncan, a Republican congressman for South Carolina’s third congressional district, tweeted “How’s that Syrian refugee resettlement look now? How about that mass migration into Europe? Terrorism is alive & well in the world. #No.”
The Palestinian journalist, Rula Jebreal, rebutted this accusation, saying: “Even before victims’ bodies cool, disgraceful politician exploits horrific #ParisAttack to blame desperate refugees.”
Other commentators on Twitter were quick to blame a radical interpretation of Islam as the prime motivation for the attacks. Kenneth Rapoza, a journalist who writes for Forbes magazine, in a series of tweets said he believed that all single Muslim men should be kept out of Europe as a way of keeping potential terrorists out. Many regurgitated the old accusation that Saudi Arabia was in any way funding terror outfits. This is an absurd accusation that they regularly bring up.
While some misguided Saudis may have given money to and even joined terror groups, this certainly does not mean that the Saudi government aids any terrorist organization. This is a crazy anti-Saudi accusation with no evidence to back it up, and is thrown about by people whose anti-Muslim and anti-Arab feelings are kept barely under the surface.
The terrorists certainly want to scare the French government into stopping their bombing of Daesh positions in Syria and Iraq, and to make the French fear for their lives as they go about their daily lives doing the things they love most. Hopefully the Parisians will bounce back from these terrible attacks, and continue going to cafés, concerts and watch football games in stadiums as usual.
Likewise, I hope that French authorities and the public at large do not fall prey to anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hatred because of these attacks. France has the largest Muslim population of any European country, an estimated 4.7 million, or 7.5 percent of the total population. It would be a great shame if the French moved back on their great traditions of liberty, equality and fraternity. The openness and freedom of western societies is one of their biggest strengths, and it would be terrible if these were to suffer because of the attacks. It is obvious that security measures and intelligence gathering need to be beefed up in France, especially when it was only 10 months ago that the deadly attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket took place in Paris. But the spirit of freedom and welcoming refugees should not be lost in a fit of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hysteria unleashed by these latest attacks.
That is exactly what the terrorists want to provoke. Let’s not give them that pleasure, and instead show the world that Muslims and Christians, Arabs and Europeans, can live together in peace and respect. We owe it to the world and to ourselves.

http://www.arabnews.com/news/835641

Syrian refugees in Brazil

Syrian refugees in Brazil. (Foto AFP)

Syrian refugees in Brazil. (Foto AFP)

This is my column that was published in Arab News on Oct. 18, 2015:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

IT isn’t a very well-known fact but Brazil has been taking in Syrian refugees since 2013 when the Brazilian government decided to issue them special visas that gave them refugee status in the country. In September, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff announced that her country was extending special visas for Syrian refugees for another two years. There are now roughly 2,000 Syrian refugees living in Brazil.
Many Syrian refugees have said in interviews that they chose going to Brazil legally with visas and on airline flights over risking their lives being smuggled to Europe via the Mediterranean. Even so, immigrating to Brazil is not that much cheaper than going to Europe. Ali, a new Syrian immigrant in Brazil, told BBC Brasil that he paid $10,000 to get to Brazil.
The two main problems that Syrian refugees face upon arriving in Brazil are the language barrier and the fact that the Brazilian government has no official program to help refugees settle once they arrive. I’ve read accounts of individual young male Syrians arriving at the airport in São Paulo and being overwhelmed by the different language here and not having any local contacts yet that can help them.
With a lack of Arabic-speaking staff at the airport, some new arrivals have spent days in the terminal until someone told them how to take the bus to the center of the city and where to find cheap hotel accommodation.
The language barrier is especially harmful to these Syrian immigrants as it stops them from finding good jobs. Some local charity groups, such as Caritas, as well as mosques in São Paulo have been providing language lessons to the refugees and helping them find at least temporary jobs. Some enterprising Syrians have set up their own small stalls on the streets to sell homemade Arabic pastries and sweets to make a little money.
Brazil is going through an economic crisis, with many Brazilians being laid-off of work, so this has not helped the work prospects of the new immigrants. I’ve read several reports in the Brazilian press that immigrants from Haiti, which were once flooding into the country at the rate of several hundred a month, are now leaving Brazil for greener pastures such as the United States.
To help cope with this situation the Brazilian government has allowed needy Syrian immigrants to be enrolled in their income transfer program called Bolsa Familia, which pays very poor Brazilians a small sum of money every month to stop them from starving. According to BBC Brasil, there are now 163 Syrian families receiving monthly payments of around $41 each. This may seem like peanuts, but this welfare program was designed to keep the poorest of the poor Brazilians from absolute poverty, and not for helping refugees. Sonia Rocha of the Institute of Work and Society Studies told BBC Brasil that she did not think the Syrian refugees should be included in the Bolsa Familia program because they need specific help from the Brazilian government.
“This just masks the problem,” she said. “We need proper mechanisms for refugees in our institutions.”
To help state governments and municipal officials deal with the influx of refugees from various countries, the Brazilian Ministry of Justice’s National Committee for Refugees last week released R$15 million in credit (around $4 million) for the assistance of refugees and immigrants.
Despite all of the problems, the positive side of this story is that Brazilians are very friendly and welcoming, and this helps immensely in the adaptation of Syrian immigrants to their new home. The children of these immigrants, once they are enrolled in Brazilian schools, quickly pick-up the Portuguese language and often end up being their parents’ interpreters when they deal with Brazilians.
Brazil is a continent-sized nation with a population of 203 million, rich in minerals, agriculture and rivers. This country could easily absorb up to 50,000 refugees, according to a paper written this month by Cecilia Baeza, a political science professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, who specializes in the Arab world. One problem they face that Baeza points out in her paper is the lack of support from the local population of Arab descent who are of Syrian and Lebanese origin, who because most of them are Christian therefore do not feel compelled to help the new immigrants who are mostly Muslim. “Some fear that the arrival of Muslim refugees would change the image of the diaspora, which is mainly Christian. Adolfo Numi, director of the Syrian Charitable Society in Chile, recently said in an interview: “We want to bring Syrian refugees to Chile, but even if we do discriminate by religion, we want the Syrian community in Chile to remain Christian in its majority…,’” writes Baeza.
Facing such discrimination, it is imperative that the Brazilian government and the local Muslim community in Brazil help these Syrian refugees much more. Most of these immigrants are educated and can contribute a lot to Brazil. There are many opportunities here despite the economic downturn, and what these refugees need is help with cheaper accommodation, since high rents are one of their main complaints; intensive Portuguese-language and Brazilian culture training and monthly cash payments for at least two years to help them buy food and other necessities.
Most of the Syrian and Lebanese immigrants to Brazil in the 20th century arrived here penniless but soon adapted to their new home and built successful businesses. Today, there are Brazilians of Arab origins in the highest echelons of the government and business community. There is no reason that this new wave of immigrants from the Syria cannot achieve the same heights. They just need a little helping hand to begin with, and the many opportunities offered by such a rich nation as Brazil will surely take care of the rest.

http://www.arabnews.com/columns/news/822041

Russia extends agony of Syrian civil war

Russian SU 25 SM ground attack aircraft (ground) and MIG 29 jet fighters (taking off). (AFP photo)

Russian SU 25 SM ground attack aircraft (ground) and MIG 29 jet fighters (taking off). (AFP photo)

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The formal entry of Russia into the Syrian civil war last week, with its bombing of rebel targets in Homs and Hama, places which by the way have no Daesh forces, is a bad omen for the region.  A visibly weakened Bashar al-Assad regime was having difficulty holding on to the smaller Syria that it still controlled and if not for Russian intervention in its favor, it may have been forced sooner rather than later to the bargaining table.

The United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have been supporting various Syrian rebel groups that are fighting for a new Syria without Assad and all of his thuggish allies. Forty-four years of Assad family rule has been far too much for the Syrian people, who emboldened by the Arab Spring revolts in the Arab world in 2011, decided to peacefully protest against their government. The regime’s answer was violence, arrests, torture and “disappearances”. It is no wonder then that the opposition soon took up weapons to defend itself from the merciless attacks of government forces.

But if you listen to the Assad regime, you hear another story which sounds like a fairytale it is so ridiculous. On Friday, the regime’s favorite cheerleader Buthaina Shaaban appeared on the BBC’s Newsnight program to stupidly claim yet again that there was no civil war in Syria, and that in fact the Syrian government was fighting “terrorists” hell-bent on blowing up schools and hospitals, not fed-up civilians who have formed rebel militias to topple a regime that has held Syria in its blood-stained hands for far too long.

The Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir stressed the struggle to get rid of Assad in a speech to the United Nations on Oct. 1, lamenting that “the international community continues to be unable to save the Syrian people from the killing machine that is being operated by Bashar al-Assad. …Those whose hands are stained with the blood of the Syrian people have no place in a new Syria.”

The U.S. under the administration of President Barack Obama has been extremely reluctant to get too involved in the Syrian conflict, limiting itself to bombing Daesh targets in Syria and Iraq from the air, action that has yet to seriously affect Daesh’s capability to rule and hold on to its territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sensed this American hesitation as weakness and decided to step in by expanding an air base in Syria and stationing Russian bomber jets there. After their first bombing runs, in which they hit a rebel group that is funded by the Americans and killed 33 persons, the US government issued barely a peep in protest.

For sure the Russians are not rushing ground troops into Syria, having learned a hard lesson in the 1970s during their bloody occupation of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, Iran is rushing more soldiers and commanders into Syria to bolster the Lebanese Hezbollah forces already there. This only adds to the sectarian dimension that the Syrian civil war has taken on.

With approximately 300,000 Syrians already dead in a civil war half-way into its fifth year, the beginning of an active Russian military intervention and more Iranian troops arriving, the prospects of a peace settlement seem remoter than ever. European Union members should be at the forefront of trying to resolve the Syrian civil war as soon as possible, given the huge numbers of refugees that is has been forced to deal with this summer coming from Syria.

While the U.S. and its allies took pains not to target Syrian government forces in their bombing raids of Daesh targets in Syria, the Russians have had no such compulsions. The long talked about no-fly zones over northern areas of Syria near the border with Turkey to provide safe-havens for rebel groups and civilians, were never undertaken by the US because of Obama’s hesitation and hand-wringing over how far to get involved in Syria.  For sure the many losses that Americans were subjected to in their 10-year occupation of Iraq are one of the main reasons that Obama and many other Americans were reluctant to okay no-fly zones in Syria. But if they had been implemented two years ago, the war would have taken a different turn for sure. Now, the rebels without any protection are going to be much more vulnerable to Syrian regime attacks thanks to the powerful Russian air cover and attacks that are bolstering the Assad regime.

It’s a shame really given that the US maintained no-fly zones over parts of Iraq for years before Saddam Hussein was overthrown in order to protect the Kurdish population. The Kingdom footed the bill then, and perhaps could have contributed to help maintain no-fly zones over Syria, but Obama did not have the guts to do so. His administration will be remembered for that, and not kindly.

Bold steps embolden nation

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, center, with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Naif, right, and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, center, with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Naif, right, and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman’s first 100 days in office have been marked by a series of bold decisions that have left Saudis pleasantly surprised at the measures taken after what seemed a long period over the last several years where the Kingdom just seemed to be coasting along on its reputation as the center of the Muslim world.
The unrelenting march of the Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen, taking over the capital Sanaa last year and then forcing Yemeni President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to Aden and then to Saudi Arabia when they bombed his Aden office, moved King Salman to decide to intervene militarily in Yemen along with a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Arab and Muslim coalition of more than 10 nations. Critical to this decision no doubt was his son Prince Mohammad bin Salman, recently appointed the deputy crown prince, and our current defense minister. Only 30 years old, Prince Mohammad is known for his hard work and determination to get things done, and we are now seeing this in the campaign in Yemen to halt the advance of Houthi troops and reinstate the legitimate government of Hadi.

Our new Crown Prince Mohammad bin Naif, a youthful 55 years old, brings years of experience as interior minister fighting the scourge of Al-Qaeda, having survived an attack on his life by this nefarious terrorist group. The crown prince while being tough on the terrorists of Al-Qaeda has also realized that many of its members are disaffected youth that have been led astray by the deviant, hateful and bloody ideology spouted by the group, and therefore started a de-radicalization program run by the Ministry of Interior aimed at re-educating captured members of the group and offering them a way back into Saudi society by giving them jobs and marriage possibilities. For sure, some of the program’s participants have relapsed and returned to the folds of Al-Qaeda, but that is to be expected, as no program is 100 percent effective when it comes to ideology and what really stays in a person’s mind and heart.
Other appointments by King Salman to his Cabinet have injected new blood into the highest echelon of the Saudi government, giving a much younger generation of Saudis the chance to have a say in how the country is governed. My good friend Adel Al-Toraifi, who is only 36, is now the culture and information minister. I was very glad to hear of his appointment, remembering our many conversations about Middle East politics over cups of coffee whenever he used to visit Jeddah from Riyadh. Likewise, it was exciting to hear of the appointment of Adel Al-Jubeir as our new minister of foreign affairs, who at 53 is only a few years older than me. I still remember working with him at the end of the 1980s when I helped cover a Saudi exhibition for Arab News in Washington and he was just starting his career at the Saudi Embassy there.
But perhaps most intriguing have been the recent sackings of several officials by the king after they misbehaved in public and their shenanigans were caught on video and quickly posted on social media on the Internet for all to see. In April the then health minister, Ahmed Khatib, was caught on video having a heated argument with a citizen who was complaining that his sick father was getting poor treatment at a private hospital. Khatib could be heard dismissing the man’s complaints. After the clip was posted online there were many angry reactions and King Salman sacked the minister. The crown prince decided to treat the father of the man in the video.
Later in April, King Salman banned Prince Mamdouh bin Abdulrahman from speaking to all media and from taking part in any sports activities after he made racist remarks on a live sports television program against a Saudi sports journalist, denigrating him for being of foreign descent. Online commentators praised the king for his action, saying that it showed that all Saudis should be treated the same and with respect. Indeed, in March King Salman stressed how all Saudis are the same in a speech he gave: “There are no differences among Saudi people or areas,” he said. “We are determined to address the roots of the divergences and the causes of divisions so that we can eliminate the categorization of the society in a way that harms national unity. All Saudis are equal in rights and duties,” he said.
This month the king replaced the head of royal protocol after the official was caught on camera slapping a photojournalist in the face at the airport in Riyadh when he was covering the arrival of Morocco’s King Mohammad VI. Happening just a few meters away from where King Salman was warmly greeting the Moroccan king, Mohammad Al-Tibaishi, the royal protocol official in question, was caught on camera slapping the journalist. While I know that journalists can be quite pushy and aggressive while trying to cover such important events, nothing ever justifies physical violence in such circumstances.
With all of these actions, King Salman is showing immense resolve to show the Kingdom’s determination to defend its strategic and national interests by intervening in Yemen and sacking Saudi officials who disrespect the Saudi people. This has given much pride and hope to the average Saudi citizen, who feels happy that the Saudi leadership is taking charge of our country’s destiny instead of allowing it to be too affected by foreign powers. We are a strong nation that can and should decide its own future. The time has come and all Saudis should rise to the challenge.
We’ve had too many years of complaining and expecting that others will solve our problems. We can do it ourselves, and we should be proud that we are able to do so.

http://www.arabnews.com/columns/news/744761

To end the bloodshed in Syria

Syrian protest

This is a translation from the Portuguese of my column that appeared in O Globo newspaper of Rio de Janeiro on 10/02/2012

RASHEED ABOU-ALSAMH

The relentless violence that has spread in Syria since March of last year, with demonstrators calling for more freedom being violently suppressed by government forces, in recent days has reached unacceptable levels in the city of Homs. Hundreds of men, women and children are being brutally murdered by gangs of pro-government militias, or victims of the relentless bombing of the air force that dropped more than 200 bombs on the city Monday in only four hours.

After the veto of Russia and China at the UN Security Council in New York on Sunday of a resolution condemning the Syrian government for the violence in the country and demanding the beginning of a dialogue with the opposition, supporters of the defeated resolution were reduced to cursing the two Eastern powers. The US closed its embassy in Damascus, and Britain and France, among others, called back their ambassadors for consultations. The six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia, withdrew their envoys in Syria and expelled all Syrian diplomats from their territories.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who inherited the violent and sadistic streak of his father, the bloody Hafez, constantly gives speeches accusing the protesters of being foreign spies, mobilized to ruin the country. In his mind it is all a plot to end his reign as ruthless dictator. Indeed, Syria became a police state in 1970 when Hafez al-Assad came to power in a military coup. All his opponents were killed, imprisoned and tortured, or pushed into exile abroad. A network of informants across the country instilled a fear of criticizing any government measure or leader in public. This month marks the 30th anniversary of the massacre of Hama, which occurred in February 1982, when Hafez ordered the army to end an Islamist revolt in that city. The whole city was demolished by a brutal bombing that killed up to 40,000 people.

Unfortunately, leftists in the West were left starry-eyed when Bashar (and his wife Asma) inherited the leadership of Syria after Hafez’s death in 2000. They were seduced by the two young professionals, good-looking, charming, educated in London modern and secular in outlook. Many had hopes that Bashar was going to change things in the country, opening the economy and allowing a space for political opposition. And he did liberalize the economy, allowing neighboring Turkey to invest in many areas, a radical change from the past when the economy was centralized and state-controlled, a legacy from the era when the Soviet Union was the great ally of Syria. The problem here is that most contracts went to his Alawite allies, followers of the same obscure offshoot of Shiism, of which Bashar is a member.

For a long time Syria was considered the leader of Arab nationalism, especially because of its hatred for Israel, to which it lost the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six Day War. But with the Arab Spring uprisings sweeping the region, Syria was not immune to the revolutionary wave, and here we are almost a year after the first clashes between protesters and supporters of Bashar, with 6,000 dead in Syria and the country in a brutal civil war. The dilemma we face is this: Must we invade Syria to end the cowardly massacre of innocent civilians in Homs, or do we have to pursue diplomacy? I think it’s more than clear that the time has come to use force against Bashar, because talking with him has led to nothing, and has given him the opportunity to kill more of his countrymen.

In a very interesting article published in The National of Abu Dhabi, on February 5, an Emirati military analyst, Ahmed Al Attar, and William J. Maloney, argued that a force composed of troops of the GCC countries, Jordan and Turkey could invade Syria from the south and north to establish liberated zones where forces of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and refugees from cities under government attack such as Homs and Hama, could seek refuge. NATO (of which Turkey is a member) and the US would help with their air power to destroy the air defense systems of the Syrian government, and maintain a no-fly zone over the entire country.

It is clear that the invaders would have to enter Syria with clear and public defensive goals to only protect civilians and create a safe space for the opposition to negotiate the exit from power of Bashar and ensure the transition to a democratic future with honest and open elections open to all parties.

The American academic Anne-Marie Slaughter, who is the former director of planning at the US State Department, believes that following the doctrine of “responsibility to protect”, which was used in 1999 when NATO bombed the former Yugoslavia to end the genocide of Muslims in Kosovo, an invasion of Syria to protect civilians being brutally killed there, could be supported by the UN.

It is true that there is little stomach now in the US and Britain for an air campaign over Syria like what was done in Libya. But it is precisely here that rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar can provide the money to finance such a military campaign in Syria, and use its latest generation fighter planes bought from the West. Syria forms an axis of Shia allies starting in Iran, going through Iraq and Syria, and ending with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Taking Bashar out of power would weaken this Shiite alliance, which threatens the political and economic interests of the GCC and the West.

Syria and the world would be much better places without the “monster” of Bashar al-Assad. We cannot allow his forces to continue to kill thousands of innocent Syrians, who are clamoring for more freedom, and keep our arms crossed waiting for diplomacy to save them. The time to act is now.

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