By Ghassan Charbel*
“What is taking place in Syria,” he said, “is much more alarming than what was taking place in Iraq 10 years ago. The nature of the struggle is different and more complex. The area is more vulnerable than it was prior to the removal of Saddam Hussein. In Baghdad, America was spontaneous and determined. In Damascus, America is listless, hesitant and soft. In Baghdad, Tehran wanted to see Saddam removed and was preparing to reap the benefits of his eclipse. In Damascus, Tehran is so involved in the confrontation, as though it is defending its project and the fringes of its role and its prestige. Region change is dawning from Damascus, not Baghdad.”
He went on, “Arab safety valves are nowhere to be found. Morsi’s Egypt is sinking in unrest. Maliki’s Iraq is drowning again in a crisis of its components. Assad’s Syria is the theater of a brutal battle mixing together revolution, internecine strife, regional faceoff and international emasculation. With such givens, you can’t but expect the worst.”
I was startled by the Arab official’s words and asked him to elaborate further.
He said the most dangerous thing regarding Syria is the foreclosing of retreat. The opposition cannot backtrack after the fall of nearly 100,000 dead and material damages estimated at $100 billion. The regime too cannot do an about face after what it did. The regime also hinges on Bashar al-Assad. That’s why Lakhdar Brahimi returned frustrated from Damascus because he broached the taboo subject.
My interlocutor felt Brahimi’s last trip convinced Assad’s enemies at home and abroad that change was needed in the balance of forces on the ground. This simply means a new round of funding and arming. Damascus is heading to a major showdown liable to produce additional victims, ruin and refugee waves.
He said Russia, which went too far in its support of the Syrian regime, finds it difficult to backpedal. Besides, the door key is in Tehran, which acts as though the Syrian regime’s fall is a catastrophe, not a loss. That’s why it is putting its full weight in the ongoing conflict. It believes its exit from Syria will perturb its presence in Iraq and Lebanon and dent its image at home. Ties with Assad are the biggest, longest and most costly Iranian investment in the region. Cutting the Syrian stretch of the line running from Tehran to Beirut via Baghdad means Iran losing its mission. And the mission is more important than the bomb that could defend a bigger undertaking.
Hezbollah too cannot go into reverse. Fall of the regime would downgrade Hezbollah from regional to local player and rub out the word “steadfastness” from its vocabulary.
The official drew my attention to a very precarious development. The chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army said the FSA would henceforth deal with Hezbollah fighters in Homs as “mercenaries, not prisoners of war.” Whoever looks at the map would appreciate the implications of such words i.e. that Syrian-Lebanese and Sunni-Shiite relations are likely to be severely tested once the regime falls.
The official said the “more difficult episode” of the Syria crisis is approaching.
If the regime survives in part of Syria, it means moving from regime risks to map risks. Fall of the regime by knockout means an unstable Syria for years. Al-Qaeda sinking root in Syria is very dangerous. All scenarios confirm Damascus is more treacherous than Baghdad was.
The official did not miss asking me about events in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley town of Arsal.
*Ghassan Charbel is the Lebanese editor-in-chief of the Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily al-Hayat. The original Arabic wording of his editorial appears in today’s edition of al-Hayat.