By Alexander Morse Shepard
The Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy is a think-tank based in Washington DC. The organization is highly sought after as a source of policy advice by those within the American political system. The center also has considerable support within certain sections of the academic world. The organization also has ties to the lobbying group, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee.
Within the last few months, the institute has a offered a very peculiar view of the current situation in Syria. Their writers acknowledge two indisputable facts. One is that Assad has won the war. The other is that the international community, especially the Arab League, are resuming pre-war status quo relations with the Baath regime. Furthermore, they even acknowledge that both America and Russia: America’s current geo-political foe, have a shared fight against Daesh extremists in Syria.
While it is refreshing that they acknowledge the truth of the geopolitical situation on the ground, it is baffling that they offer such counter-intuitive and regressive advice of how to deal with the situation. They do not acknowledge that Assad is the victor of an internal conflict, and that any real solution or change within the system must be through working with the current administration. Instead, they paint Assad as a uniquely evil force. A truly exceptional villain of which there can never be rehabilitated or even negotiation. Rather than acknowledge that the common stake in defeating Salafi extremism serves as a bridge to bring together Russia and America, they encourage that the new cold war be maintained within the status quo. While there is much to say on both these fronts, this paper shall deal primary with the issue of Assad’s rehabilitation.
David Schenker, writer at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy expresses his chagrin in his recent article, written a little over a month ago, entitled “Rehabilitating Assad: The Arab League welcomes a Pariah.”
He opens his article by claiming:
“In recent weeks, momentum has been building toward reintegrating Syria into the Arab League. The country was suspended from the organization in November 2011, eight months into a brutal regime suppression effort that had killed 5,000 civilians.”
Schenker goes onto discuss, and then lament, the steps taken within the last few years by various Arab league countries to restore relations with the Assad regime. First Tunisia, followed by the UAE and Oman restored their diplomatic relations with Damascus. Oman and Syria recently announced an intention to boost mutual investment. Furthermore, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq have engaged in diplomatic exchanges with the Syrian government, weakening whatever remains of the Syrian revolution. Even Saudi Arabia, who have long been at the forefront of overthrowing the Assad government, have announced the possibility of re-opening embassies. In other words, the Arab League sees the writing on the wall, Assad has achieved victory and the revolution is finished. Despite anti-Shia prejudices which were at the heart of the attempt to overthrow Assad, the Arab league understands the reality of the geopolitical situation which faces them. It is in far greater an interest to restore relations. This is because, as Schenker notes, Gulf States seek to use Syria as a medium for exporting oil to Europe. On a nationalist level, the Arab league wishes to seek a united front to both expel Turkey from the parts of Syria which it occupies. Furthermore, they know that despite the shared belief in Shia Islam by both the Iranian and Syrian regimes, there is not much else which binds them together. Syrian, and Arab Shia in general, have often been proud of their Arab history and identity and are quick to reject accusations that they function as Iranian sleeper cells. For this reason, Arab league nations seek to bring Syria back into the fold. This is specifically to prevent Iran from being able to use Syria and Lebanon as a permanent bases of operation.
Schenker offers his sharpest rebuke of the Arab League for their unforgivable sin. Acknowledging the reality on the ground and not wanting to continue financing a lost cause. He notes that this is in violation of both the wishes of the United States of America and the UN security council.
“engaging Assad also ignores the need to hold the regime accountable for its ‘massive violations of human rights and international humanitarian law,’ in the words of UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres. Technically, these violations fall short of the international definition of ‘genocide,’ but the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has characterized them as ‘brutal crimes against humanity and war crimes.’ During an April address to the General Assembly, Guterres reiterated that those responsible for such crimes—including the use of chemical weapons against civilians—should no longer enjoy impunity. ‘Perpetrators,’ he said, ‘must be held to account.’
Schenker’s acknowledgement that the activities of the Syrian military, and pro-Assad militias may very well constitute brutal crimes against humanity yet not the crime of genocide is very important for reasons which I will shortly explore. It is quite telling that he cites the US Holocaust museum’s opinion on the subject.
After further lamenting the rehabilitation of Assad, the policy piece is quite clear in its recommendations for the United States. He specifically states that not just the Arab League, but all international communities which Syria has been isolated from, must be pressured to maintain their distance. Above all else, the recent presidential election in Syria must be rejected, as is any solution to the crisis which leaves Assad in power. In his conclusion, he specifically spells out what needs to be done to prevent Assad from rejoining the international community:
“Concurrently, the United States should increase its humanitarian efforts in Syria and prevail on those Gulf states leading the normalization charge to provide additional assistance as well, especially in areas outside regime jurisdiction. Assad remains in control of Damascus and its environs, but the decisions to use chemical weapons and commit other mass atrocities against the Syrian people are beyond the pale and should preclude his rehabilitation. At this point, however, only the United States can prevent that outcome.”
Another article authored for the Washington Institute earlier this month, by fellows Oula A. Alrifai and Aaron Y. Zelin, titled “The Policy Consequences of Arab State Normalization with the Assad Regime” also laments this change in policy, and is far more drastic in its warnings and recommendations. The authors insist that normalization is founded on a false premise that the war is over, and that if only the US, NATO, and Arab league would resume their earlier attempts at overthrowing Assad, a new Damascus regime may very well gain power. Alrifai and Zelin insist that normalization will not change the behavior of the Assad regime, and will seek only to embolden and strengthen his largest backers, Russia, and Iran. Furthermore, it will weaken the positions of fundamental American allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Unlike Schenker, they use the term “genocide” to refer to Assad’s actions. Even though there is no credible evidence of Assad engaging in any deliberate attempt to exterminate any religious, cultural, or racial group. Unlike his opponents in the Syrian civil war. The article concludes by recommending that the current Biden administration renew America’s commitment to overthrowing Assad and use all available means to achieve it.
“the administration should pay close attention to its allies’ drive to normalize relations with the Assad regime, and should work hard to dissuade them from pursuing this unwise, short-sighted, and dangerous course of action. The administration should explain to them that re-empowering an Iranian client is surely not a viable way to contain Tehran’s regional ambitions, however difficult the path to implementing a democratic transition in Syria and pursuing justice against war criminals may be. It might be late, but Washington needs to defend its position in Syria and reclaim its credibility with the Syrian people, or it will suffer even greater consequences than those that have already been wrought by a conflict that has proven time and again that what happens in Syria does not stay in Syria.”
The fellows at the Washington Institute all present a very straight forward argument. According to them, Assad’s regime is uniquely evil. He is worthy of no less than the highest degree possible of shunning, sanctions, and even military intervention. Intervention either in the form of direct support for insurgencies, or in surgical military strikes, both of which were provided. Most importantly, the Biden administration must not lose their most important proxy in their war against Assad, the Arab League. According to Schenker, Alrifa, and Zelin the current trend of normalization between Assad and his neighbors must be stopped.
The most peculiar take-away from these articles is that the authors indicate that the Arab League can somehow be used as an example of what democracy, human rights, and an open society should look like. Or at the very least, Assad’s brutality outshines the handiwork of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Sudan, Morocco, and other Arab nations. Surely, the organization must be credible in the field of human rights, or at least far worse than Assad for Schenker to advocate for diplomatic relations with one and not the other. Schenker’s primary thesis is that the Arab governments must be held to lofty standards of human rights set by the UN Security council and maintain their pressure on the Assad regime. However, this forces me to ask a simple question, what makes the Arab League responsible actors in the field of human rights, political freedoms, democracy, international law, or any other doctrine supposedly embraced by the western world? If these nations are not beholden to these standards, why would the Washington Institute insist they uphold them in their dealings with another nation?
If the Arab League are somehow shining examples of human rights, and their rebuke is worthy of consideration, then we should simply ask where have the Arab League stood on the subject of the Darfur Genocide? In the subsection of his article, “Arab League cynicism” Schenker freely admits that the Arab League failed the inhabitants of the Darfur, Sudan. Specifically, he remarks that the Arab League cordially welcomed Omar al-Bashir in 2009 after the UN rebuked his actions in western Sudan and called for a peacekeeping force. The Holocaust Museum of Houston reports that almost half a million civilians, mostly members of the Fur ethnicity, those who were so brutally and systematically targeted by the racist government of Omar al-Bashir, have been slaughtered. Millions more have been displaced and women have been brutally raped in mass. This heinous act of mass murder has largely been labeled a genocide, including by organizations such as the US Congress, Genocide Intervention network, Genocide Watch, and the International Association of Genocide Scholars.
The Arab League often shielded Omar al-Bashir from prosecution and criticism. An article about 15 years ago, by the very same Washing Institute, documented the Arab League’s complacency in the Darfur genocide. The article was written by distinguished scholar of Sudan, Dr. Robert Collins. Collins notes how the Arab League universally condemned a UN mission to send a peace-keeping force to Darfur Sudan. He also notes that the Arab League backed Omar Bashir and his Arabization campaigns largely due to deep seated feelings of anti-African racism plagues Arab society.
Of course, it will be protested by some that this is talking about a no-longer relevant issue. Omar Al Bashir has been overthrown, and the current Prime Minister of Sudan, Abdalla Hamdock, has expressed his full support with international cooperation regarding the Darfur issue. Hamdok has also signed peace agreements with the SLM, the largest Darfur Rebel organization, and has sought reproachment with neighboring Chad, also a victim of Bashir’s butchering. This has led to Darfur largely being described as a solved problem, with UN peacekeeping forces having returned from the region. Despite occasional clashes, the problem appears to be under control. Although it should be stated that Genocide watch still lists Sudan as an emergency: level 9, situation. This is due to not only prolonged violence in the Darfur region, but also in other parts of the country.
The fact remains however, that Omar al Bashir was, for his entire reign over the nation of Sudan, never suspended from the Arab League. His brutal dictatorship, crimes against humanity, and institutionalized apartheid and genocide against Sudan’s racial and religious minorities, never once earned him the scorn of his fellow Arab autocrats. The only other country besides Syria to have been expelled from the Arab League was the nation of Libya in the last days of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. It’s worth noting, that when the Arab league wished to extend its warm welcome to the predecessor of what constitutes, in the most vague terms, Libya’s current “government,” it dispatched Mr. Bashir to extend its greetings. Furthermore, in a state of twisted irony, Gaddafi was the only Arab Leader to ever apologize for the Arab slave trade, a horrendous, over millennia long, and ongoing human rights atrocity. Additionally, Gaddafi was the only Arab leader to have ever condemned the Darfur genocide, to the point he provided money and weapons to Darfur Rebels.
An ongoing issue that is far from resolved however, is the current Saudi led genocide against the country of Yemen. Specifically, a genocide against Zaydi Shia who are the majority population of the country. According to the United Nations, several hundred thousand Yemeni civilians have died, and well over a million more Yemeni civilians may be at risk of starvation thanks to Saudi Air strikes and a blockade.
Genocide-watch, an NGO dedicated to the tracking and prevention of genocides around the globe, describes the situation in Yemen at its highest level, of “Level 9, Extermination.” This is specifically when an active campaign of extermination is underway, on behest of a racist and brutal government. Most notably, Genocide Watch also specifically places Saudi Arabia’s treatment of Shia Muslims within its own borders, as being, within level 8, “Discrimination.” This is often the stages before all-out extermination, where a minority is dehumanized, with rights heavily restricted, and punishments unfairly applied to them.
On top of this, Saudi Arabia spends millions of dollars to incite anti-Shia hatred all around the Sunni Muslim world. The Saudi Arabian government is well-known for passing out anti-Shia literature to Muslim pilgrims who attend Hajj. Saudi Arabia also finances and spreads anti-Shia hate literature to nearly every corner of the globe. Distinguished journalist Patrick Cockburn has documented how this has disastrous effects. In locations where the Shia populations are live in uneasy balance with their Sunni neighbors: Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Iraq, Shia have been under attack by Salafi extremists. Individuals radicalized and financed by Saudi literature, weapons, and money.
Has the Arab League ever offered a condemnation of the atrocities in Yemen? While certain Arab countries have offered their own criticisms, the Arab League has not only been silent, but supportive. Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, Morocco, Egypt, and Jordan all actively support the genocide in Yemen. This is through providing logistics, weapons, mercenaries, and other means of assistance. A 2017 report from human rights watch notes that Saudi Arabia and UAE’s genocidal war of aggression against the Yemeni Zaydi Shia is part of a wider anti-Shia campaign, which inspired Daesh’s genocidal wars against Shia in Twelver Shia in Iraq and Syria.
So as one can clearly see with the examples of Sudan and Yemen, the Arab League clearly does not have much of an eye to human rights when countries are suspended from their membership. Beyond raw expressions of naked Anti-African and Anti-Shia bigotry, it is difficult to see what possible reason that other Arab league countries have for condemning the Assad regime.
Clearly, it is not the suppression of protestors, of which the Arab league countries universally have a lengthy have a track record. Nor is it suppression of dissent, the torture of journalists, and certainly not even the use of chemical weapons. So with the Arab league a neighborhood of glass houses piled with stones, one is left to wonder what makes them worthy judges of human rights.
So, to conclude this article, allow me to offer a counter policy proposal for the Biden administration. Let us not play favorites in foreign policy disputes where no actor clear has a monopoly on violence or victimhood. Let us return to the principles of John Quincy Adams, which is that “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” In short, America has two options. One option is for the administration to completely dissolve all connections with the Arab League, who collectively have done far more damage that the Assad regime. However, taken to the extreme this is an unfeasible and undesirable solution, for this would entail America severing its connections with nearly every country on the face of this planet. For every state actor engages in crimes against humanity to some degree. Not to mention America’s own violations of international law both within her own borders and beyond.
The second option, and indeed, the most-simple option, the one called for by all rational and sensible parties. Specifically, all parties who do not have a personal vendetta against Assad, an ambition to exterminate Syria’s religious minorities, a stake in easily exploiting Syria’s natural resources, or a desire increasing weapon sales to a volatile region and causing more deaths. Is for the United States to simply do what it should have always done, what it cannot do too soon. Which to formally end all military assistance to the Anti-Assad forces and to restore diplomatic relations with the Baath regime. Let Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jingping attend the summit proposed by Tulsi Gabbard to end the new cold war and usher in a new era of international relations. The Biden administration can use ending America’s proxy war against Syria as leverage in several other areas of middle eastern politics. Namely, as an incentive for Iran to reenter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Agreement. Furthermore, by improving relations with Iran and Syria, Biden can pressure Saudi Arabia to cease its war crimes in Yemen. Iran and Saudi Arabia, two bitter rivals, in recent months have begun talks of normalization. The current administration should use the end of the Syrian conflict to encourage the end of the Saudi/Iranian cold war.
What will the future hold for such a normalization? Perhaps within the next few decades, through an increased exchange of ideas, the future generations within Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia will tire of living under despotic regime, and the US will be in a genuine position to provide the guidance necessary for building a free society.
Categories: Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy