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February 27, 2012

Syrians skeptical about foreign help

Haroon Siddiqui

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Why is it that it is only now, after 11 months of civilian carnage, that Bashar Assad's victims are beginning to call for foreign military intervention - reluctantly and obliquely at that, out of sheer desperation?

And why is it that even as Syrians increasingly revile him, many still think of him as less of an evil than having Syria opened up to western, especially American, machinations?

Suspicion of the West is embedded in the Syrian psyche. The memory of British and French carving up the country in the 20th century runs deep. So does the loss of Golan Heights to Israel in 1967, and Syria’s pan-Arab posture as “a front-line state” in the Palestinian struggle.

Such thinking manifested itself in Toronto last week.  After a talk on the first anniversary of Arab Spring, an Arab Canadian hinted at my naïveté for not grasping the neo-imperialist plans in the guise of humanitarian intervention. A day later, at a similar event on the U of T campus, there were passionate assertions that toppling Assad may serve as the hors d’oeuvre for an attack on Iran.

Assad feeds such nationalism, accusing opponents of being tools of western neo-imperialists. So, “no one wants to be seen as an agent of any western power,” notes panelist Professor Jim Reilly, an expert on Syria.

The Syrian National Council, the leading dissident group, is headed by Burhan Ghalioun, a secular academic who has long lived in exile in Paris. He called for military intervention, only to recant. Radwan Ziadeh, deputy leader, is speaking of humanitarian intervention without stating the obvious, that humanitarian corridors are not possible without military cover.

Syria bore the biggest impact of the European Crusades. And when the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire triumphed in 1918 with the capture of Damascus, the British double-crossed the Arabs.

They had recruited Sharif Husain, emir of Mecca, for the cause. But when his son, Amir Faisal, was proclaimed king of Syria, including Palestine, the French saw it as a violation of their pact with the British to divvy up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. French forces defeated Faisal and claimed the mandate for Syria (and Lebanon).

That sowed the seeds of Arab nationalism later harnessed by the ruling secularist Baath Party.

Assad’s father, Hafez (president 1970-2000), was a partner of the Palestine Liberation Organization in “the Steadfastness Front” against Israel and the U.S. He cozied up to Moscow, which supplied arms. The oil-rich Gulf nations supplied the money — until he sided with Iran during its 1980-88 war against Iraq. He felt that Saddam Hussein was wasting Arab energy and resources fighting Iran rather than Israel.

Assad turned against Saddam only when the latter invaded Kuwait in 1990. He started getting Arab money again and was granted control of Lebanon, which Syria lost only after being implicated in the assassination of Rafik Hariri.

In 2003, Bashar Assad opposed the American invasion of neighbouring Iraq. The U.S. imposed sanctions. That only enhanced Syria’s image as the last bastion of Arab nationalist resistance to the West.

The aura lingers, even though the regime has been pragmatic in its dealings with both the U.S. and Israel. Post-9/11, it provided intelligence as well as its torture chambers. It has kept its border with Israel quiet. It has let the U.S. try and pry Damascus out of the Iranian orbit.

As late as March 27, Hillary Clinton was calling Assad a reformer. Barack Obama took his time calling for Assad to go. And despite Syria’s daily crimes against humanity, there’s still no foreign military intervention on the horizon.

As they gingerly call for outside help, the people of Syria are also wary of a civil war, as was triggered by the American invasion of Iraq, leading to the killing of more than 100,000 civilians and an exodus of 2 million refugees to Syria.

Syrians are desperate to be rid of their murderous regime without having their country spin out of control.

The Star, February 18, 2012

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