Commentary

The Russian Plan Provides a Respite

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

The apparent success of a Russian proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control — thus preventing a U.S. strike — has sparked a new round of speculation among the editorials, observers, and government officials in the Middle East. There are those who see the White House as being outplayed by the Russians, while others see the plan as a first step in a wider diplomatic solution, to say nothing of avoiding a wider regional conflict. But for those who have been calling for a more robust response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, President Obama’s decision to call off strikes for the time being was clearly disappointing.

To begin with, several government officials around the region have spoken favorably in response to the recent developments. In Lebanon, the Daily Star’s (Lebanon) Hasan Lakkis reports that for many, including the Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salim, “The receding threat of a U.S.-led military strike on Syria has had a positive impact on the tense political and security situation in Lebanon…. The head of a security body made intensive efforts over the past few days to convince Lebanon’s feuding parties not to wager on developments in the conflict in Syria and obtained a favorable reaction.”

 Syria’s only close ally in the region, Iran, has also welcomed the news, with the Tehran Times staff citing the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei who “has said he is hopeful that the new policy of the United States on Syria is not a ‘political game’.... Ayatollah Khamenei also said, ‘They (the Americans) are even ready to ignite fire and trample on the interests of other countries and nations to serve their purported national interests which are in fact the interests of the Zionists and big capitalists.’”

The mood in Turkey couldn’t be any more different. The Turkish Daily News, for example, reports that Ankara’s officials continue to make the case that the crisis in Syria was not just about chemical weapons, but about lost lives due to the Syrian government’s policies: “The crisis in Syria isn’t solely about solving the chemical weapons issue, Turkish President Abdullah Gül has said, while also adding that Russia’s proposal for the Syrian regime to hand over its chemical weapons is a significant development....Meanwhile, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Levent Gümrükçü said that Turkey welcomes the proposal that would allow Syria to surrender chemical weapons to the control of the international community, but such a move would not abolish the Syrian regime’s responsibility for past incidents where chemical weapons were used.”

For some Israelis, the lesson learned from President Obama’s switch from belligerence to diplomacy is to be more alert and to only count on its own strength to deter others: “‘In the fog that is covering the Middle East, we must realize that we can count only on ourselves and build an army that will deter any enemy,’ Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said Wednesday after Russia reportedly gave the United States its plan for placing Syria's chemical weapons arsenal under international control. Speaking at a memorial ceremony for fallen Armored Corps soldiers in Latrun, Ya'alon said: ‘We must keep in mind that our greatest enemy is arrogance, haughtiness and oppression of thought. We mustn't follow our desires blindly after the warning signals that flickered from the Yom Kippur War.’”

The region’s observers were equally divided in their appraisal of the U.S. president’s speech on Tuesday night.  Some believed that, even though the new policy shift was the result of a not well-thought out statement, in the end the outcome is a desirable one. A recent Khaleej Times editorial for example, noted: “A goof from John Kerry seems to have changed the war argument in Washington....This is the time for the world community to kickstart a new phase of dialogue and address the imbroglio in a holistic manner. The use of chemical weapons last month is just the tip of the iceberg, whereas the fact is that the crisis for the last two years has seen more than 100,000 deaths and two million people homeless. The death and destruction in Syria should come to an end — and that goal is more important than tossing a dozen or so missiles over Damascus.”

Gershon Baskin, writing for the Jerusalem Post, maintains that the U.S. administration’s embrace of the Russian proposal provides some way for the “The international community may finally do something in a united way to bring the Syrian civil war to an end and escort in a period of gradual democracy there through elections in which Assad would not participate. There could be motivation in that diplomatic effort to remove the non-Syrian jihadi groups which have been fighting Assad. Hezbollah would remove its 10,000 troops from Syria and return home to Lebanon where they have been significantly weakened in stature because of supporting Assad. With success in Syria, the international community might even become bolder in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue.”

And for Arab Times’ Ahmed Al-Jarallah, the new diplomatic efforts allow the Syrian people to finally have a say in their future, without the fear of an international intervention: “Now, the door is open for all to get out of the embarrassing situation which they had placed themselves in. America will not launch a military strike on Syria if the Russian initiative moves forward and in the right direction. Paris, which had shown a great zeal for a military strike against Damascus, has become one of the first countries to support the binding international decision from the Security Council. After all this, those who want to support either the regime or the opposition in Damascus can do so, but most importantly let the Syrians decide their future because they know their destiny better than anyone else.”

Not everyone agrees, however. Many commentators have drawn attention to the ongoing conflict in the country and the unabated level of violence there. The Peninsula editorial asserts President Obama’s decision not to strike against the Syrian regime amounts to dithering and puts the country’s civilians in danger: “Follow the president’s statements since he first made the threat to punish the Syrian regime if it crossed the red line on chemical weapons, until his remarks at a meeting with Democrats and Republicans yesterday in which he expressed his desire to choose the diplomatic option, and what we can say with certainty is that this is a president who is confused, uncertain, wobbly and timid on Syria....Arab countries have been hugely disappointed by the latest developments. A Gulf official said the new plan would not help end the bloodshed in Syria....The West will continue to fiddle.”

Similarly, Al Hayat’s Randa Takieddine feels that there is only one option left for those who want regime change in Syria: “Now, it has been proven to the world that whatever massacres take place, and whatever the death toll in Syria, no one can save the true Syrian Revolution except the rebels themselves on the ground, and friendly countries such as France and some influential Arab states....This is because Hollande is truly convinced that there will be no political solution without changing the balance of power in military terms in Syria. For this to happen, how many additional victims must be killed every day by the weapons of a regime that is continuing to act in a certain way because it knows no other?”

Francis Matthew writes disapprovingly in his Gulf News editorial.  He believes that Mr. Obama’s last minute decision reflects a lack of conviction and clarity regarding the Syrian conflict: “However, this surprise shift to an apparent international deal over Syrian chemical weapons is not dealing with the main problem, which is the continuing civil war in Syria. It is an impossible stretch to agree with Obama’s comment that finding a solution to the chemical weapons issue lays the ground work for a wider political answer....The international community is hiding behind its commitment to the Geneva Process under which it says it will support a negotiated political solution to the Syrian civil war, seeking an inclusive interim government supported by all parties.”

Finally, there are those, like Asharq Alawsat’s Tariq Alhomayed, who consider the Russians the real victors from this week’s dramatic developments: “The Russian initiative, or shall we say trick, demonstrates that the security of the entire region is in danger as a result of Obama’s weakness, while also confirming that the Russians have returned to be a major player in the region. It is clear that Russia and Assad have learned the lesson from Egypt, realizing that Washington is always on the back-foot when others are taking the initiative and maneuvering. This is what the Russians and Assad achieved by using chemical weapons as a means of maneuvering throughout the crisis, even though the Syria crisis is not just linked to chemical weapons.”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.