Paul Workman: A surreal and remarkable couple of weeks in the Middle East
Published Sunday, September 15, 2013 8:00PM EDT
BEIRUT -- Surely this was a surreal and remarkable couple of weeks in the Middle East, which is never short of surprising and alarming events at any time. America threatened to bomb Syria; Russia, with uncharacteristic diplomatic finesse, threw President Obama a golden parachute. And for the grand finale, President Assad made what appears to be a genuine commitment to give up his country's arsenal of chemical weapons .
President Obama’s last-minute hesitation earned him the title of "ditherer;" Russia’s Putin is basking and probably chuckling at his new role as "peacemaker," and Assad will live to fight another day. Could anybody ask for a happier ending?
Yes. The Syrian rebels who believe that Assad and Putin are trick masters who pulled off one extraordinary heist; the millions of Syrian refugees now living in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey who are no closer to going home, and Bashar al-Assad himself. Like Saul of Tarsus, was he struck by a blinding light and suddenly converted to reason on the road to Damascus? No, he was hit over the head by Putin and ordered to give up the very arsenal that offered a measure of military balance with Israel. (“They have nukes; we have sarin.”) He swallowed a bitter pill to save his neck, and above all, to continue pressing for victory against the rebels—a war he is only winning with the help of reinforcements from Hezbollah. I ask you: what leader in his right mind would like to owe his survival to Russia, Iran and Hezbollah? That’s where Bashar al-Assad finds himself.
Dr. Daniel Warner, a political scientist from Geneva gave the perfect summary of Assad’s predicament: "Without Russian support," he said, "Mr. Assad would be in grave difficulty." He needs Russian weapons and he needs their political backing to survive, all of which made it a very satisfying time for Vladimir Putin. He saved not one president, but two, and came across as only slightly smug.
An Arab journalist I was speaking to in Beirut described Obama as a "small boy in the politics;" by comparison, Putin showed his shrewdness and maturity, and perhaps a better understanding of how the world works.
Back to Assad and his weapons for a moment: perhaps it wasn’t such a huge concession to get rid of all that sarin and mustard gas: the Israelis already have military superiority, and are developing a missile shield that will eventually be able to knock down anything Assad fires at them. So where’s the balance? And frankly, do the Syrians need it, when they have a steady supply of Russian and Iranian arms to use against the rebels? I would really like to know who ordered the chemical attack -- was it possible without Assad’s knowledge or complicity? And for the long term, can the Russians save Assad from prosecution for war crimes, which is surely the next step to consider.
Since I couldn’t get into Damascus, it was fascinating to be in Lebanon watching all of this unfold, a country that has much to lose if the war spreads -- and is already struggling to deal with 700,000 Syrian refugees. You can find some of them begging and shining shoes in Beirut, but there are no sprawling, wretched camps, like you find in Turkey and Jordan. (That’s because of Lebanon’s experience with “temporary” Palestinian refugee camps that were set up after 1948, and remain today as permanent slums, often seething with crime and political warfare.) The Lebanese are extremely sympathetic to the plight of the Syrian refugees; they just don’t want them staying forever.
I was last in Beirut in the early 90s when the country was just emerging from its 15 bloody years of war and invasion. The downtown area around Martyr’s Square has been transformed into a kind of high-end, commercial Disneyworld, but you can still see relics of the city’s misery: probably the most imposing is the empty and battered hulk of the Holiday Inn, which soars above the rebuilt Phoenicia Hotel. And of course it makes you wonder, could it happen again?
Lebanon has 17 officially recognized sects -- Sunni, Shia, Christian, Druze, Maronite, Alawite -- can there be a more sectarian nation anywhere on earth? And since the end of the war, the divisions have not gone away. Lebanon hasn’t had a government for about a year, and Hezbollah has more soldiers under arms than the Lebanese army; it is not a recipe for peace and stability.
I look next door and see much the same thing happening in Syria. Sunni, Shia and Alawites consumed in a proxy war that is being funded by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Iran, Russia, and more and more, the United States of America. Get the picture? It took 15 years to find peace in Lebanon; how long will it take in Syria?