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  Opinion   Columnists  05 Jun 2023  Saeed Naqvi | Syria’s return to Arab League has some lessons for Kyiv’s Zelenskyy

Saeed Naqvi | Syria’s return to Arab League has some lessons for Kyiv’s Zelenskyy

The writer is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi
Published : Jun 5, 2023, 12:17 am IST
Updated : Jun 5, 2023, 12:17 am IST

Assad’s arrival in Jeddah was no tepid entry.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. (AP)
 Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. (AP)

Syria’s re-entry into the Arab League in Jeddah after a 12-year expulsion has some angles which are yet to be explored. For instance, the presence of Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy making an appearance in Jeddah was ironical, being a classical American protégé. Arab leaders, accustomed to US hegemony, switched in Jeddah as they are convinced of America’s decline. Syria is the beneficiary.

After 20 years of occupying Afghanistan, 10 years of total control of Iraq, Americans came a cropper in a most humiliating fashion. How then did they dream up a scenario that they would be able to bring about a regime change in Damascus, by mobilising regional Arab countries to embark on cross-border terrorism? The other name for such action is “proxy war”, that has not yet bruised Russian President Vladimir Putin.  

As Ukraine is being destroyed, so were the ancient Biblical sites of Syria. But Western failure in weakening the regime was manifest in several episodes. For example, take the grilling Gen. Lloyd Austin was subjected to by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for having botched up a $500 million project to train “moderate militants” who would be set upon Bashar al-Assad’s forces. What happened was something of a tragi-comedy.

After having received rigorous training plus expensive weaponry, the soldiers for the Free World vamoosed in the cover of darkness along with the weapons and ammunition. Intelligence agencies tracked the treacherous trainees in the ranks of Jabal al Nusra, which represented militant Islam. The officer in charge of the training was Gen. Austin, now US defence secretary. At the Senate hearings, Gen. Austin was asked: “How many of the militants trained by us are still fighting for our cause?” Gen. Austin was tongue-tied. After a long pause, he said: “Four or five”. Ashton Carter, Barack Obama’s defence secretary, was in tears, all in front of the cameras. 

The moral that Mr Zelenskyy should grasp is this: Well-entrenched regimes can’t be toppled by proxy wars and Vladimir Putin is several times more powerful than Assad.

The other major lesson for Kyiv is the change of heart in the Arab world. Assad’s arrival in Jeddah was no tepid entry. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has obviously concluded that efforts to dethrone Assad have failed. Russia’s intervention in Syria was, in its audacity, comparable to their taking control of Pristina airport a little ahead of Nato in 1999. A clash was prevented and Pristina airport became a unique venue where Russia and Nato co-exist since 1999.  

Gen. Wesley Clark, the Nato commander, was determined to reverse the situation at the airport. His deputy, Britain’s Mike Jackson, refused to obey him. “I am not going to start World War III for you.” Gen. Clark’s almost uncontainable anger and determination to teach the Russians a lesson was, to my mind, the earliest military demonstration of the “sole superpower” mindset. 

So complicated did this episode in Kosovo become that secretary of state Madeline Albright persuaded her policy planning chief Morton Halperin to launch a major study of Kosovo’s recent history. Halperin invited his scholar friend from Princeton, Richard Ullman, to lead the study. The point to note is that the Russians refused to back down even as the sole superpower proclaimed its arrival. Nato had already been brought into play in 1995, Serbian excesses against Kosovo’s Muslims had increased. But that’s another story. 

Southern Slavic ethnic links between Serbs and Russians as well as their Orthodox Church affiliation have been factored into Mr Zelenskyy’s retaliatory moves. For instance, he ordered Orthodox priests to leave the centuries-old Kyiv church compound. The accusation was that these priests and worshippers have links with churches in Moscow. This is a sensitive matter. The Balkans may be the turf where the Ukraine war will be pushed by Mr Zelenskyy. 

Since it is presumed that Mr Zelenskyy is still being directed by the US, could he, in desperation, unilaterally push the fighting outside Ukraine, possibly even into the Balkans. My guess is that President Joe Biden is so preoccupied with internal crises that he won’t have the attention span to improvise on Ukraine, particularly as the script so far has gone woefully against all the media boast and bluster.

But Mr Zelenskyy should know that the entire Arab World has switched away from the US camp for a very simple reason. Whatever residual hope there was of US hegemony surviving has evaporated with leaders like Emmanuel Macron moving ahead on a world order without any Western dominance. Arabs, Africans, Latin Americans, even South Asians, all have seen a multipolar world swim into their ken. This explains the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, or Syria’s return to the Arab League. After President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was re-elected to a new term in Turkey, an Ankara-Damascus rapprochement is also on the cards.

The rapidity with which events have loosened American control almost everywhere, except presumably the UK, takes my breath away. In this last case, it is always difficult to find who is controlling whom. Is the experience of the Empire and exhausted imperialism in competition?

Let me place myself in Assad’s most elegant adviser Bouthaina Shaaban’s office in the presidential palace. I have seen US ambassador Stephen Ford and the French ambassador join dissident groups in Homs, Hama and Dera. “Don’t you have any rules for diplomats?” I asked. Bouthaina’s response was astonishing. “Just shows how penetrated we are.” That was 12 years ago.

A former US ambassador in West Asia, Ed Peck, said something which I am tempted to repeat. “I have been dismayed by the accolades and support given to Ambassador Ford, our man in -- and now out of Syria, for stepping well out of the traditional and appropriate role of a diplomat and actively encouraging the revolt/insurrection/sectarian strife/outside meddling”.

Tags: ukrainian president volodymyr zelenskyy, arab league, syria