Syrians should beware of some of their foreign ‘friends’ | Brian WhitakerBy
Syrians should fear eastern, not western, intervention – especially autocratic ‘friends’ like Saudi Arabia
From Monday no one will be tortured in Syria. The state will guarantee personal freedom for its citizens and preserve their dignity and security. People’s homes will be inviolable. Everyone will have the right to express opinions freely and openly, and the state will guarantee the freedom and independence of the press.
At least, that is what is supposed to happen if President Assad gets a yes vote today in his referendum on the new constitution. It’s meant to show Syrians – and the rest of the world – that Assad, in the midst of turmoil, is steadily and calmly pressing ahead with “reforms”.
Hardly anyone is convinced, though. The contrast with what is happening on the ground – and internationally – lends an air of unreality to the new constitution and its accompanying referendum. As the multinational Friends of Syria group gathered in Tunis on Friday to discuss ways of toppling the regime, the regime itself was blithely preparing to announce that for the convenience of voters the number of polling stations in Syria would be increased from 13,835 to 14,185.
But if Assad is whistling into the wind, so too are the Friends of Syria. They are divided over what to do – mainly because there is no course of action, apart from further isolation of the Assad regime, that doesn’t carry a serious risk of making matters worse.
At the meeting in Tunis on Friday, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton had little to offer beyond $10m in humanitarian aid for Syrians and the words: “We cannot let them down.” She also predicted an internal coup. That would conveniently relieve the Americans of their what-to-do-about-Assad dilemma – though, as we have seen in Egypt, it wouldn’t necessarily bring deliverance to Syrians.
For Britain, the foreign secretary, William Hague, has vowed to keep “tightening the diplomatic and economic stranglehold on the regime” while more or less ruling out military action. It may not seem much – especially to those under rocket fire in Homs – but it might do a bit of good and, more important, it’s unlikely to do much harm.
What we should fear most is not western military intervention, since it isn’t in prospect, but eastern intervention. There is something surreal about a group of “friends” promoting change in Syria that includes so many autocrats and, as one of its leading lights, the country most notorious for resisting progress: Saudi Arabia.
At one point during Friday’s meeting, the Saudi foreign minister reportedly stormed out, self-righteously complaining about “inaction” (though some reports deny it). Later, asked if arming the Syrian opposition would be a good idea, he replied: “I think it’s an excellent idea.” Indeed, some suspect the Saudis are already doing just that.
Meanwhile Qatar, a less oppressive autocracy than Saudi Arabia but an autocracy nevertheless, called for the creation of “an Arab force” for Syria.
None of that bodes well for Syria’s future. The Saudis, who have banned all forms of demonstrations on their own turf and are not averse to shooting protesters, have deliberately messed up two Arab revolutions over the past year – first by sending troops into Bahrain to preserve the monarchy there, and then by manipulating the Yemeni uprising to ensure that nothing much would change after they abandoned President Saleh.
Given that, there was a curious irony to the banners hung around the conference area in Tunis on Friday. The English “Friends of Syria” had been changed in Arabic to say “Friends of the Syrian people” – as if to emphasise that they had the interests of ordinary Syrians uppermost in their hearts.
The reality, of course, is that for all countries attending, national interests (or what they perceive as their national interests) come first and the Syrian people second. In some cases a distant second, even among the “brotherly” Arabs.
Saudi Arabia’s Sunni/Wahhabi rulers are paranoid about what they see as a threat from Shia Muslims. They are fearful not just of Iran but of the marginalised Shia communities inside their own realm and the rebellious Shia majority in Bahrain ruled over by a Sunni king. There’s also Iraq on their northern border where long-suppressed Shia influence has re-emerged – thanks to George Bush – following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
From a Saudi perspective, getting rid of Assad will help to shift the balance back in Sunni Islam’s direction. Most Syrians are Sunnis, though the regime itself is dominated by Alawites – a Shia offshoot – and closely allied to Iran. Saudi “support” for the Syrian opposition, therefore, is likely to make the conflict more sectarian rather than less.
Syrians should beware of “friends” as much as enemies.
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from Brian Whitaker