Does Syria’s return into Arab League bring US down another notch?

Story by  Saeed Naqvi | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 28-05-2023
Syrian President Bashir al-Assad with other leaders of the Arab League
Syrian President Bashir al-Assad with other leaders of the Arab League


Saeed Naqvi

The irony of Volodymyr Zelensky making an appearance at the Arab League Summit in Jeddah to witness Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad reoccupy his chair in the League, appears to have been lost on most. Arab leaders, accustomed to US hegemony, have switched because they are convinced of American decline. Syria is the beneficiary of this appraisal.

After 20 years of occupying Afghanistan and 10 years of total control of Iraq, Americans came a cropper in a most humiliating fashion. How then did they dream up a scenario that they would be able to bring about a regime change in Damascus, by mobilizing regional Arab countries to embark on cross-border terrorism? The other name for such action is “proxy war” which has not yet bruised Vladimir Putin.

As Ukraine is being destroyed so were the ancient Biblical sites of Syria. But Western failure in weakening the regime was manifest in several episodes. For example, take the grilling Gen. Lloyd Austin was subjected to by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for having botched up a $500 million project to train “moderate militants” who would be set upon Assad’s forces. What happened was something of a tragicomedy.

After having received rigorous training plus expensive weaponry, the soldiers for the Free World vamoosed in the cover of darkness along with weapons and ammunition. Intelligence agencies tracked the treacherous trainees in the ranks of Jabal al Nusra, which represented ghoulish Islamism on the scale of Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. The officer in charge of the training was the then Gen. Austin, now Secretary of  Defence.

During the Senate hearings, Austin was asked: “How many of the militants trained by us are still fighting for our cause?” Austin was tongue-tied. After a long pause, he mumbled. “Four or five.” Ashton Carter, Obama’s Secretary of Defence, was in tears, all in front of cameras.

The moral that Zelensky should have grasped was this: Well-entrenched regimes cannot be toppled by proxy wars and Vladimir Putin is several times more powerful than Assad.

“Putin cannot be brought down by a proxy war.”

The other major lesson for Kyiv is the change of heart in the Arab world. Assad’s arrival in Jeddah was no tepid entry. The Syrian flag fluttered all along the route. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has wisely concluded that efforts to dethrone Assad have failed. Strong headwinds in that project came in the form of the Russian intervention in 2015.

Russian intervention in Syria was, in its audacity, comparable to their taking control of Pristina airport a little ahead of NATO in 1999. A clash was prevented and Pristina airport became a unique venue where Russia and NATO coexist since 1999.

Gen. Wesley Clark, the NATO commander was determined to reverse the situation at the airport. His Deputy Mike Jackson, part of the British contingent in NATO refused to obey Clark. “I am not going to start World War III for you.” Gen. Clark’s almost uncontainable anger and determination to teach the Russians a lesson was, to my mind the earliest military demonstration of the “Sole Super Power” mindset.

So complicated had this little-known episode in far-off Kosovo become that Secretary of State Madeline Albright persuaded her Policy Planning Chief, Morton Halperin to launch a major study of the recent history of Kosovo. Halperin invited his scholar friend from Princeton, Richard Ullman to lead the study for which space was created in the State Department. The point to note is Russia's refusal to back down even as the Sole Super Power proclaimed its arrival. NATO had already been brought into play in 1995. This was when Serbian excesses against the Kosovo Muslims had increased. That’s another story.

Southern Slavic ethnic links between Serbs and Russians plus their affiliation to the Orthodox Church have already been factored into Zelensky’s retaliatory moves. For instance, he ordered Orthodox Priests to leave the centuries-old Kyiv Church compound. The accusation is that these Priests and worshipers have links with Churches in Moscow. This is a sensitive matter. Balkans may well be the turf where the Ukraine war will be pushed by Zelensky.

Since it is presumed that Zelensky is still being directed by the US, could he, in desperation, unilaterally push the fighting outside Ukraine, possibly even into the Balkans. I guess that President Biden is so preoccupied with internal crises that he will not have the attention span to improvise on Ukraine, particularly since the script so far has gone woefully against all the media boast and bluster.

Indeed, Zelensky should know that the entire Arab World has switched away from the US camp for a very simple reason. Whatever residual hope there was of US hegemony surviving has evaporated with leaders like Emanuel Macron already proceeding on a world order sans Western dominance. Arabs, Africans, Latin Americans, and even South Asians, all have seen a multipolar world swim into their ken. This explains the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement or the Syrian return to the Arab League. After Turkish election results are announced on May 28, an Ankara-Damascus rapprochement is also in the cards.

It takes my breath away, the rapidity with which events have loosened American control everywhere except, presumably, the UK. In this last instance, it is always difficult to find who is controlling whom. Are the experiences of Empire and exhausted imperialism in competition?

Let me place myself in Assad’s most elegant adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban’s office in the Presidential Palace. I have seen US Ambassador Stephen Ford and his French counterpart join dissident groups in Homs, Hama, and Dera. “Don’t you have any rules for diplomats?” Bouthaina’s response is astonishing. “Just shows how penetrated we are.” That was 12 years ago.

A former US ambassador to West Asia, Ed Peck said something which I am tempted to repeat.

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“I have been dismayed by the accolades and support given to Ambassador Ford, our man in – and now out of Syria, for stepping well out of the traditional and appropriate role of a diplomat and actively encouraging the revolt/insurrection/sectarian strife/outside meddling”.

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