By Nasser Weddady
The recent agreement between the United States, Russia, and Syria’s ruler Bashar Al Assad to hand over all of the Syrian chemical arsenal has been hailed by some as a major victory. On the face of it, the arsenal’s removal guarantees that atrocities such as the August 21st chemical attack in Damascus’ suburbs will not be repeated. In practice, the disarmament of Assad’s regime is a non-event insofar resolving the Syrian conflict is concerned. The belligerents are no closer today than they were prior to the chemical attack to reach any negotiated solution. The regime strong with its Russian backing, declared flatly that it will not negotiate with the Syrian National Coalition, thus emptying the long-awaited Geneva II peace conference from its substance.
Although chemical disarmament is a stated objective of the international community, the Syrian regime has skillfully played its hand – with strong Russian support – to create a process that in practice ties chemical disarmament to its own survival. Bluntly put, Assad traded in his chemical arsenal in exchange of shelving any serious attempts to unseat him either through military action or indirect backing of his opponents. Ultimately, in either case, he comes out of the entire exercise with a new lease on life: more precious time for him and his Iranian allies to further consolidate their military gains on the ground to crush the uprising against his rule. It is hard to find parallels to this situation in recent history outside of the Middle East.
The closest one would probably be that of Bashar’s own father Hafez Al Assad after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. After being comprehensively defeated on the battlefield, Hafez Al Assad continued the war through other means: deny Israel, the United States and its allies the ability to translate the military victory on the ground to a new Lebanese political order. He achieved that goal by a strategy combining proxy warfare, co-optation and intimidation of Lebanese political players. By 1985, Hafez Al Assad succeeded in turning a military defeat into a resounding political victory: Israel retreated into its self-declared security zone in Southern Lebanon, and the United States having lost interest in any involvement in the Lebanese quagmire after the 1983 bombing of the US marines barracks in Beirut abruptly disengaged from the entire Lebanese scene. At the end of it all, Assad remained the indisputable master of Lebanon until his death in 2000.
All throughout these massive and complex exercises of geopolitical wrangling, the Lebanese people were largely left to face their own destiny as the world decided to measure “progress” in Lebanon through contrived benchmarks of progress and fixing objectives that failed to address the core issue of the Lebanese civil war. The same is being done today in Syria. The big and powerful nations of the planet will continue their wrangling so long there is no clear vision and strategy to end the war in Syria. In the meantime. some would begrudgingly admit that the old adage “like father, like son” applies today on Bashar Al Assad keeping his father’s legacy of strategic bargaining.
Ultimately Lebanon’s fate was sealed with the signing of the Taif Accords, ending a decades-long Lebanese civil war but in effect giving international blessing to Hafez Assad’s supremacy over Lebanon. History is in danger of repeating itself. Do we really want to hand Syria over to Russia and Iran?
Nasser Weddady is Outreach Director at the American Islamic Congress