On a visit to Damascus in April last year, I had the pleasure of dining with Robert Ford, US Ambassador to Syria. Over wine, I suggested that, as push increasingly came to shove in Syria, somebody should write about ‘Robert Ford's Cuban Missile Crisis’. With all the pushing and shoving currently going on, the time for that may be now.
Let me explain: the 1962 US-Soviet clash over Cuba inspired John Ford's Cuban Missile Crisis, a play in which villains with black hats confront good guys wearing white in a gunfighters' faceoff, as made famous by the films of U.S. director John Ford. By contrast, my point 13 months ago to Ambassador Ford – which I've stuck to – is that there are no simple white-hat/black-hat distinctions between good guys and bad in the Syrian crisis, though it could move towards a violent regional denouement worthy of his namesake's movie showdowns.
As a long-time regular observer of Syria (having last been there a few weeks ago, and returning at the start of next month) with a knowledge of the country that doesn't just come from TV and the Internet, I can't defend the Syrian state's ham-fistedness, but neither am I enamored of the so-called opposition. Sure: there is trouble in Syria. Yet, interviews with demonstrators paid to chant anti-Assad slogans, and faked videos of torture, are not proof that the "regime" is oppressing its Jeffersonian opponents, and that the latter should therefore get outside help, including from Turkish soldiers and the French air force.
Whatever the origins, events in Syria are now being driven by massive propaganda directed from the Gulf and aiming to destabilize the country. Obviously, there are genuine demonstrations and real problems in Syria; but there is also no doubt that outsiders are stirring up, financing, and producing a great sanguinary show to sway world public opinion.
This is dangerous because the geopolitical tussle over Syria could spark a major regional confrontation. Syria is linked to the Iranians and Hezbollah, with some in the corridors or ante-rooms of power in the West and Israel wanting to turn the country into a shooting gallery, along the lines of parts of Iraq, to isolate Iran and her allies and so bolster Israeli/Western security. Such plans are foolish; in fact a stable Syria, especially a more egalitarian one that will hopefully emerge from the current mayhem, would be the cornerstone of a secure Middle East.
As for the rest of the mess into which the region is sliding, an end to Israel's bullying of Palestinians, and the winding down of U.S. pretentions in the Gulf, would help create true peace. Meanwhile, the situation in Syria is becoming more ominous, and even less of a simple Manichean, "good vs bad" John Ford conflict.
In short, the Syrian crisis is complex and mustn't be treated as a gaudy media spectacle to be resolved violently, but one that should be settled through quiet negotiating by diplomats, including, of course, the other Ford, Robert. No slouch, the ambassador has just received the prestigious Profiles in Courage Award for making visits to restive Syrian provinces last year to see things there at first hand. Let's hope he shows the same fearlessness in confronting propagandists and other hired guns in the Arab World and the West alike that are recklessly helping to destabilize Syria and push the region towards war.
Riad al Khouri is an Arab economist who lives and works in the region.
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