The Arab world has longed to get rid of the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for years. Future generations will remember the savage massacres perpetrated by the Syrian regime and the images of women and children who were slaughtered. However, this strong desire to eradicate the regime will, for the most part, never be translated into support for US military intervention, because of misgivings and mistrust concerning US motives.
US President Barack Obama’s address on Saturday last week was loaded with emotions. He used the phrase “moral responsibility” to justify punishing the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons against civilians.
That, however, did little to convince many Arabs. Few have felt this moral responsibility in their dealings with the US, which has been losing credibility with the Arab public for decIades. An entrenched image of US double standards and political bias against Arab interests has taken root; especially with regard to US bias towards Israel and the US’ longstanding support for tyrannical Arab regimes. This image was reinforced even more strongly after Washington’s “war on terror” and its invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.
While Obama’s election initially seemed appealing, with his promises of new policies in the Middle East, he missed the opportunity in his very first test in dealing with the Palestine question. He retreated from his demands for an end to Israeli settlement of Palestinian land — a demand he had personally made — and backtracked on a promise to close Guantanamo detention facility.
And under Obama the US continued to cause heavy civilian casualties through its use of drones against targets in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, quashing Arab hopes of any serious change in policy.
And there are other reasons why Arab doubts over US air strikes on Syria are justified. First, the US “red line” policy over chemical attacks came very late; long after the Arab red lines. The expected US attack is therefore related to its desire to end a long run of setbacks to its international prestige. Obama knows that any silence over the crossing of his red line would expose the US before the world as weak and incapable. For the Arab world, Syria crossed all red lines over two years ago. Between the two lines, more than 100,000 people were killed. Every kind of weaponry was used against civilians.
The second reason to question the US’ seriousness is that an attack would be limited in terms of targets and duration. It will not aim to topple the regime. Syrians and Arabs are asking: what happens after this attack? The regime may hesitate to use chemical weapons in future; but it would not hesitate to kill by other means. It would continue to kill according to US criteria, and the Syrian people would continue to pay a heavy price.
Most important of all, there are fears that US air strikes will open the way for future US meddling in Syrian affairs. Intervention may be extended to include the use of unmanned aircraft to attack “suspects” in Syria, or to try to impose a new political outcome on both sides of the conflict, which would risk causing disarray.
Already, many Arabs question the credibility of any US role in building a stable democratic Syria. The military coup in Egypt called into question the US’ position toward political Islam, and democracy itself.
The US has refused to describe the enforced removal and detention of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi as a coup, despite the killing and wounding of thousands of civilian protesters by Egyptian security forces.
Given the continuing revolutionary fervor in the region, in which the Islamists play a leading role, the US has shown complicity in Egypt’s coup by continuing to fund its army. Hence a wide section of Islamic-linked Syrian revolutionaries will never welcome any major role for the US in the country’s future.
It was clear from the very beginning, when the Syrian regime first drenched itself with the blood of civilians, that its swift departure would prevent, not inflame, sectarian polarization in the country, and would move Syria towards democratic change. At the time, none of the al-Qaeda-aligned jihadist groups were present.
Yet US policy was uncertain, based on doubts over the rights of religious and ethnic minorities in Syria; the future of the country after the fall of al-Assad; and guarantees of no threats to Israel’s security. Parallel to the West’s overly cautious approach was the support given by Russia and Iran to the regime, which allowed it to continue its massacres, confident that it would not be held accountable.
Throughout the two-year terror in Syria, US intervention has been mostly negative. The US pressured Arab states in the region to prevent the delivery of advanced weaponry, especially anti-aircraft missiles, to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This was on the pretext that such weapons could fall into the hands of extremists, despite attempts by the FSA to reassure the Americans. Indeed the US demanded that the FSA fight the jihadist factions, which risked the revolution’s total disintegration.
Yes, the international community needs to take a strong stand over the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its people. It must be said though that a strong moral stand should be taken against all killing of civilians, whatever the means.
What is now required is that the US and western countries allow Syrians to accomplish their revolutionary objectives by themselves — to eradicate the regime with their own hands. The West should not prevent them acquiring the means to decide the struggle militarily, and should encourage them to continue trying to build Syria according to the rules of real democracy, without excluding or marginalizing any party or group.
The Syrian people have proven their remarkable bravery in the struggle against tyranny; given the chance, I am convinced they will demonstrate a similar level of responsibility in building a new democratic nation.
Wadah Khanfar is a former director-general of al-Jazeera television.