Reaching out to Syria was a delusional miscalculation
In October 2010, Syria’s heavy-weight ambassador Tammam Sulaiman left Australia a disappointed man. He had failed to convince Australia to reopen our embassy in Damascus.
In 2008-10 Syrians were very anxious that Australia bolster its credibility building exercise with the United States. Just before the beginning of the Arab Spring, President Obama had very unwisely reopened an American diplomatic post in Syria.
Looking back it’s hard to re-imagine the Middle East before the successful revolutions against authoritarian leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Then, the received wisdom in Western foreign policy circles was that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was a “man we could do business with”. Democrats would now be horrified to recall the prevailing view in Western chanceries that this “London” ophthalmologist and his glamorous wife (who subsequently appeared in Vogue magazine) was a closet democrat.
As I persistently warned at the time, especially after the (then) Liberal Foreign Minister’s 2003 decision to allow the opening of a Syrian embassy in Canberra, this was a delusional diplomatic miscalculation. In fact the Syrian Mission in Australia spends much of its time monitoring Australia’s Lebanese community.
How that is in Australia’s interest I leave to the Arabists in DFAT to explain. Now, more than a year after the fall of Mubarak and Gaddafi was beaten to death on television, the longest insurgency in the Arab Middle East sees nearly 10,000 civilians dead in the streets of Syrian towns Deraa, Homs and Aleppo.
It used to be said that only the US vetoed resolutions at the UN Security Council, and then usually to oppose condemnatory resolutions against its ally Israel. Now, the world decries Russia and China for their veto of the Arab League proposal for the resignation of Assad and a negotiated settlement to the Syrian crisis.
When he was in Sydney last month, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov certainly gave me the impression that, unlike the fickle West, Putin would stick with his Syrian client to the end. But Russia won’t get the last word. Even at the UN, Syria’s brutality is being denounced by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the General Assembly’s Human Rights leader Nava Pillay.
Europe has imposed further sanctions. After its almost comedic month-long, on the ground ‘investigation’ in Syria, that somehow managed to make things worse, now the Arab League now demands action from the international community despite Russia’s Syrian veto. Indeed Arab states have kicked out Damascus diplomats from several Middle East countries!
This past week in Tunis, an international “contact group” convened to assist an Arab intervention in Syria despite the Security Council’s inaction. The participating 60 states, including Australia, (represented by Secretary of DFAT Dennis Richardson) could only reach a modest consensus on a final declaration which agreed to tougher sanctions.
Yet for all the international goodwill, there was heated debate and a weak support for the establishment of “humanitarian corridors” into the conflict zone and no agreement for military intervention. Some Arab states, including host Tunisia, put a proposal for an Arab peacekeeping force.
If it happens it will be without the support of the UN, where inevitably any request by the Arab League for a UN mandated force to separate the warring parties will be met by another Putin/Hu Jintao “Nyet” in the Security Council.
It is of course unfashionable to invoke what I regard as a just cause, but one cannot ignore the palpable differences in the treatment of the current Syrian crisis and that of Israel following the Gaza exercise of early 2009. In the Gaza conflict some 1,400 people died, 750 admitted by Hamas to be either police or armed combatants.
Remarkably, Israel’s did not respond militarily until some 8,000 Hamas rockets were launched from Gaza, all aimed at Israeli cities. That response brought swift international condemnation. How galling it is for those of us who support democratic Israel to witness the relative inaction of the international community to the mass murder in Syria.
Where are the street demonstrations, where are the impassioned ads in newspapers, where are the protest ships sailing beneath flags of freedom? On Q&A comedian Austen Tayshus repeatedly asked the hard left Greens Senator Rhiannon where he might join the convoys sailing the Mediterranean to support the victims of the Syrian carnage? He is still waiting for an answer.
Israel is the victim of an inverse calculation that sees it excoriated ever more often and ever more loudly as the threats to its survival increase.
But not even authoritarian dictatorships can survive the distorting gaze of the backward telescope of CNN, the BBC and Al Jazeera. No regime, however secretive, Stalinist, or with the support of substantial minorities, can sustain the military suppression of a civilian uprising. Bashar’s father, Hafez, was a far worse butcher, killing, according to the Swiss Red Cross, 20,000 people in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982.
At that time the Ba’athist regime, facing an earlier Islamist uprising, used massed artillery batteries to reduce by grid the centre of that city. You can’t do this in the days of CNN, YouTube and handheld cameras.
Frankly I am politically indifferent to the equally obnoxious competing ideologies of some of the Syrian opposition and the holdouts of this dying Ba’athist regime. Let us have no illusions about the Free Syrian Army or some of the Islamist elements that will try to take over in Damascus. Yet it was less than 5 years ago that Ehud Olmert, to his enduring credit, flattened a North Korean built nuclear plant in northern Syria.
The Alawi/Ba’athist/Assad regime has shown an enduring and demonic hatred for Israel, refusing even the most generous Israeli peace offers, including the return of the Golan Heights to the edge of Lake Tiberias. It operates as a vassal state of Russia and provides crucial support for terrorists in Hezbollah and strategic depth for the Mullahs in Tehran.
However, as humanitarians we should hope and demand that the civilian slaughter ends. The sooner Assad and the Ba’athists are removed the better, and as an added consequence both Iran and Hezbollah, deadly enemies of Israel and the West, will be thrown into confusion. It may even derail Iran’s march to the weaponisation of its increasingly refined uranium.
We should note the advice of former Israeli national security adviser and Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, who believes that the crucial question for Israel is not whether Assad falls, but the dismantling of Iran’s ongoing influence in Syria.
Finally we should keep an eye on Turkey. The Turks are Sunni Muslims, like the majority of the Syrian population. They are geographically adjacent to Syria and have long standing territorial claims on Alexandretta (part of Syria).
If the Turkish army was to intervene, or even to agree to use the NATO base in Incirlik to establish a no fly zone over northern Syria, the days of Bashar and his Ba’athists would be quickly numbered. From there we should hope that Tunisian style democrats will emerge from the new Sunni ascendency.
They can’t be worse than the current mob.
Michael Danby is the Federal Labor MP for Melbourne Ports.
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