Isn't it Time for Safe Havens in the Middle East?
13 July 2015
By Eyad Abu Shakra
Political, social, and economic problems neither solve themselves nor
dissolve and disappear with time. They require honesty with oneself and
others as well as practical and courageous commitment to change unacceptable
facts on the ground. Think of how President Barack Obama is handling US
policies towards the Middle East. I cannot help citing Henry Clay's famous
words: "Sir, I'd rather be right than be president!"
Today, one can summarize Washington's approach towards Iraq, Syria, and
Lebanon as follows:
– In Iraq, it is the unwavering support for the ruling elite jointly brought
to power by the 2003 US invasion and Iran's expansionist policies.
– In Syria, the virtual disregard of human suffering and meaningless
"red-lines" after four years and three months of the country's popular
– In Lebanon, the tacit acceptance of Hezbollah's hegemony after neutralizing
the former battlefront with Israel through UN Security Council Resolution
In all three cases Washington's policies have been underpinned by Obama's
all-out push for an "agreement" with Iran, and his exploitation of the
Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) extremism as the perfect
justification for such an agreement, eventually developing into a fully
This reading of the situation may appear to contradict the contents of the US
State Department's annual terrorism report for 2014 published a few days ago,
especially regarding Iran and its "sponsored terror groups." After describing
Hezbollah as a terrorist group it went on to say that its "terrorist activity
around the world continued unabated," and that as "Iran's chief and most
capable proxy . . . [Hezbollah] accelerated its military role in support of
the Syrian regime and continued to plant bombs along Israel's northern
borders. Such activities have worsened the security situation in Lebanon." As
such, it has provoked an extremist Sunni reaction, and invited extremist
groups like ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front into Lebanon; and since the early
1980s Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force has been active
inside Lebanon, noting that Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the Revolutionary Guard
aerospace chief, publicly acknowledged that "the [Revolutionary Guard] and
Hezbollah are a single apparatus joined together."
This is the situation in Lebanon, where the country has failed to elect a new
president after more than a whole year of a presidential vacuum, and where
Hezbollah accept no candidate other than MP Michel Aoun, who is only too
willing to be "the Lebanese copy of Iran's Hassan Rouhani" acting under the
real authority of the "Supreme Guide"—in this case the Secretary general of
In Iraq, Washington seems to be convinced that it has done enough by
replacing former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki with his comrade Haider Al-Abadi.
It also looks as if it believes and wants everybody else to believe that
Abadi can really defeat ISIS and rebuild a united and equitable Iraq—while in
the presence of sectarian stalwarts like Hadi Al-Amri and Qais Al-Khaz'ali,
the strident sectarianism of the Popular Mobilization, and unilateral Kurdish
moves towards independence.
The most tragic situation, however, is definitely Syria's, where little
change in Washington's approach has been forthcoming more than four years
into the popular uprising, which has claimed more than 350,000 lives and
displaced more than 10 million, as well as witnessing the use of all kinds of
weapons including internationally prohibited chemical weapons.
Time and time again defensive no-fly zones and border-area safe havens were
suggested, only to be shot down by the Obama administration under the pretext
that they would force America into combat. Well, this is exactly what it
decided to do once ISIS threatened Iraq! What has happened since, is that the
whole of Syria has been transformed into a "safe haven" for all strains of
extremists flocking to its territories from all corners of the world to fight
an "unholy religious war" at the expense of the Syrian people and on the
ashes of its cities, dreams, and future.
Throughout the last four years, the Arab Sunni Muslims have provided the vast
majority of the uprisings' civilian casualties, although religious and
sectarian minorities, mainly the ruling Alawites, have suffered heavily in
terms of losses to military personnel.
This said, the uprising which has metamorphosed into a civil war is now
moving to another stage with a different kind of danger. Syria looks now as
if it is en route to having its map completely redrawn—that is,
partitioned—as the Assad regime seems increasingly unable to fight back
despite the generous backing it is receiving from its regional sponsors.
Thus, with the re-imposition of hegemony a thing of the past, the only option
left for the regime—and its sponsors—is to consolidate its forces in what has
been described as "Useful Syria," in the western part of the country. It is
worth noting here that ISIS is already in control of vast areas in central,
eastern, and southern Syria, while secessionist Kurds are steadily making way
for their mini-state along the Turkish borders.
Sure enough, all is not completed. Some final touches remain under big
question marks: Will the Arabs stay silent if the population of the border
town Tel Abyad is cleansed? Will Turkey turn a blind eye if the town of
‘Azaaz and neighboring little Turkmen towns and villages in Aleppo province
are occupied by the Kurds, attempting to extend their mini-state to the
Mediterranean via the Kurdish town of ‘Afrin, west of ‘Azaaz? What will the
Christians do if partition comes to pass, bearing in mind they are scattered
all over Syria's provinces, and make up a sizeable percentage of city
dwellers? Can the Alawites secure their own Alawite mini-state where the
Sunnis make up a high percentage of the population in the four major coastal
cities Latakia, Tartus, Jableh, and Banyas? How will the Druze react given
the fact that neither the regime nor some hardliners within the opposition
accept their bid for neutrality? What will befall what remains of the
country's minorities after the collapse of all remaining safety nets as all
fighting factions prepare for a final showdown?
Israel, which has kept relatively quiet for four years, is now preparing for
action as it feels the time is now right to brandish the flag of "protection"
before worried minorities in order to gain their gratitude and loyalty. It
began by insinuating that it would positively respond to the pressure of its
own Druze community who are now very anxious about the fate of their brethren
living across the ceasefire line in the Golan Heights and beyond. It is worth
remembering too that Turkey had also threatened action, although it
refrained—generally speaking—from any significant intervention.
Given the current challenges, and despite Washington's negative position,
there has been no better time for establishing safe havens in both northern
and southern Syria.
If agreed with Jordan, a southern safe haven will most likely keep Israel
away from what is already a volatile and confused regional formula; while if
a northern safe haven is agreed with Turkey it could spare the region what
may be the devastating repercussions of an independent Kurdish state.
To wrap up, such a solution might work for Yemen too!
Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He
has been with the newspaper since 1978.