Syrian President Bashar Assad has already scored another victory in the battle for the hearts and minds of his own people and the support of the entire Arab world. In this context, the strike by the United States, Britain and France on military installations in Syria was more a failure of the ad-hoc coalition led by U.S. President Donald Trump than Assad’s victory.
The coalition hasn’t learned that a Western strike on an Arab capital will never bring its citizens into the streets to celebrate or turn public support in their favor, no matter how despotic the leader. Indeed, even the Assad regime’s most bitter enemies found it hard to cheer for the Western airstrikes. It’s important to make a clear distinction between the positions of a few countries’ leaders, including the Gulf states, and the overall consciousness of citizens of the Muslim and Arab world.
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Syria’s public diplomacy machine did not need to work hard when it came to the attack on Damascus and one of its suburbs by the three powers. It immediately earned the sobriquet “the trilateral aggression,” familiar to all Arab ears as the name given to the military response of France, Israel and Britain in 1956 to Egypt’s then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. The steadfastness of the Egyptian nation, together with the support of the Soviet Union, gave Nasser an enormous political victory that made him popular throughout the Arab world and in many states in Latin American and Asia. The narrative then was clear: a victory for Arab nationalism against the colonialist-imperialist powers that inspired nations struggling for freedom and political and economic independence.
The scenario this time is completely different. Assad, a despot who inherited the regime from his father and has carried out unforgivable crimes against his own people, is very far from Nasser in every way. No one who supports democracy and human rights can side with his actions. But while his motives are clear – Assad will do whatever it takes to maintain his power – those of U.S. President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May are not entirely obvious.
While they pride themselves on their defense of human rights and universal values, the West does nothing to stop the ongoing slaughter in Yemen. Trump continues to extend unqualified support for Israel’s conduct toward the Palestinian people, and his two partners make do with laconic statements of censure. The events along the Israel-Gaza Strip border in the past two weeks did not elicit so much as a call for restraint from them, and oddly enough, Trump envoy Jason Greenblatt chose to lecture the Palestinians. If the goal is to defend human rights, then attention should also be paid to the regimes in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf states, which are no less totalitarian than the one in Damascus.
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The blood of the Syrian people is no different from that of the Yemenis or the Palestinians. The behavior of the Western leaders at this masked ball has once again been revealed for the double game that it is, in accordance with the map of interests that serves them. Anyone who seeks a more just and rational world must first address the oldest issue in the Middle East, the need to give the Palestinians an independent state.
In Syria and in most Arab states, including ones that oppose the Assad regime, it is clear that the U.S.-led strike will not significantly change the balance of power. It’s doubtful that it will contribute to a new political agreement that will express the genuine aspirations of the Syrian people. At the end of the day, it was only a show of power. If the West genuinely cared about the Syrian nation’s welfare, its leaders would support the national democratic opposition in the country, which envisions a modern, democratic state that provides freedom and liberty to all its citizens.
But Trump and his partners care about their interests and those of their wealthy allies in the Gulf, not about the Syrian people. The position they have taken now will not result in the establishment of a free and democratic state in the Middle East that will challenge the existing regimes, and perhaps Israel as well.