Arab Pundits Play a Waiting Game on Saleh and Assad: World View

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By Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad

The sparring between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama continued to reverberate across the English-language blogosphere.

Yet the attention of many leading Arabic-language commentators turned to a different source of conflict: the deepening unrest and violence gathering momentum in several pivotal regional states. Among these, Syria and Yemen stood out for providing some of the more surprising rhetorical attacks by voices traditionally considered friendly to the regimes in Damascus and Sana'a.

One such voice was Talal Salman, the editor-in-chief and owner of the leftist Beirut-based newspaper, As-Safir, who published an article on May 23 with the provocative title: “Where is President Bashar al-Assad?”

“The sound of bullets is almost masking the talk about the reforms in Syria that President Bashar al-Assad had pledge to achieve,” he wrote, “especially since communication has grown difficult and the noise of the tanks and the echoes of the protestors’ chants has become overwhelming.”

Criticizing the regime-dominated Syrian media for pinning the unrest on foreign agent provocateurs, Salman asked who these “elements of sedition,” and “criminals,” were exactly? He wrote: “Who is feeding them and inciting them and causing them to spread all over Syria?”

But the most dangerous and most important question, Salman asserted, is simply: “Where is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who used to have a noted popularity within Syria and a high-level of appreciation in the region in general especially since he succeeded in breaking the international siege of his country and in making new alliances?”

If Assad does not come up with a plan for dealing with the crisis, Salman wrote, and if he continues to leave the security services to “make decisions about people’s lives,” then both the regime and the wider region will be threatened.

He warned: “We in Lebanon are perhaps more concerned for Syria than the Syrians themselves. Indeed, turmoil there will rock stability here; and sedition there, God forbid, will cause the fire to spread and to burn everything down in [our] country of religions and sects.

“Sedition might even spread to all the countries of the Levant."

For Abdel-Beri Atwan, editor-in-chief of the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi and a long-time admirer of Syria’s role in periodically opposing U.S. and Israeli power in the Middle East, “a Saturday without funerals” was urgently requested.

“Every Friday, the Syrians take to the squares and streets of some cities to demand democratic freedoms and respect for the minimum level of human dignity. However, they are faced with the bullets of the security forces that shoot to kill, something that is causing the fall of dozens of martyrs and hundreds of wounded. The next day, i.e. on Saturday, funerals are organized for the martyrs. In light of an increase in mixed feelings of anger and sadness in the ranks of the mourners, the scene becomes even more tragic when the rebellious slogans emerge and are met by the bullets of the security men, thereby claiming more martyrs and continuing the vicious cycle.”

If the security forces could restrain themselves “even for a moment” Atwan argued, then the regime and the people might be able to “to consider the ways out of the bloody tragedy witnessed in the country.”

Atwan's newspaper, Al-Quds al-Arabi, which is Palestinian-owned, also offered up rare criticism of one of Syria’s most important allies in neighbouring Lebanon – the militant Shiite movement Hezbollah and its leader, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah.

After Nasrallah urged Syrians to give Assad a chance to make good on promises of reform, the paper published an editorial noting that, “While the party courageously stood alongside the Arab revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain, it did not do so when it came to the Syrian uprising. This subjected it to numerous criticisms and subjective attacks by some who hate the party and question its unprecedented victories against the Israeli aggressions.”

Yes, the editorial said, Nasrallah recognized that the Syrian authorities had committed mistakes in Lebanon. But that wasn't enough. “He did not offer any advice – so as not to say criticisms – of his friends and allies in Damascus about stopping the bloodshed and showing some sympathy – if not a lot of sympathy – toward the martyrs who fell under the bullets of the security forces because they demanded reform, the end of corruption and the consecration of democracy.”

Nasrallah, the paper added, should have exploited his strong relations with the Syrian authorities and President Assad to demand an end to “the massacres being perpetrated every Friday” and for Assad to engage in “a real national dialogue.”

And what were they saying in Syria itself? For its part, Al-Watan, a privately owned, regime-dominated daily, chose to focus on stepped up Western sanctions and “The European-American war on Syria.” “While many among the West’s hawks still perceive the sanctions as being an alleviated measure that is less than what is required for challenging Syria, ” Al Watan editorialized, “the response was swift from the Obama-Cameron duo which brought back to mind the Bush-Blair duo, regarding the fact that they will not hesitate to use power – in case it is necessary – in a clear allusion to Syria.”

Noting the near-completion of several international investigations that touch Syria – including one by the International Atomic Energy Agency regarding Syria’s alleged nuclear ambitions as well as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon that could target Syrian officials for the 2005 murder of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri – the daily argued that “this all falls in the context of a methodical process which could be referred to as the ‘Korea option’ -- that is, an effort to weaken and isolate Syria in the same way the West has isolated and weakened North Korea.

Echoing a warning delivered earlier in May to the New York Times by Al-Watan’s owner, Rami Makhlouf, the editorial explained: “One could even say that to some extent, Syria represents the state on whose nature the Middle East scene and fate are defined. It can thus reflect on the region’s stability, the changing of its components and the storm which might erupt without anyone knowing when it will end, the regional circle it will affect or the ‘historical corrections’ it could cause.”

This is not only recognized by the Syrians, the paper concluded confidently, “but also by the Europeans and the Americans in particular.”

On Yemen, where the domestic situation appeared even more divided than in Syria (and perhaps just as violent), a wide set of commentators criticized the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh; notably, this group included many from Gulf countries that had long offered political, financial and military support.

Though more measured than most, the Saudi-based Al-Watan – a paper widely seen as reflective of the thinking of key figures within the Saudi monarchy – wrote that the president's recent rejection of a Gulf initiative for transitioning out of power – “an agreement that he called for himself and which was drafted to meet his demands – raises many questions regarding the seriousness of the Yemeni regime about reaching an agreement in the first place.”

It is in everyone’s interest to listen “to the voice of wisdom and to solve the crisis before Yemen turns into a failed state in the full meaning of the word,” the paper warned.

For Anwar Salih al-Khatib, writing in Qatar’s establishment daily Al-Rayah, Saleh knows that his authority has ended but “he insists stubbornly on staying in power and the price of his stubborn insistence will be high: ‘the blood of the Yemeni people’ which has already started to flow in Sana'a’s streets.” Thanks to his decision to reject the Gulf initiative after having earlier agreed to its terms, the Yemeni president wasted a chance to leave power in a “decent” way.

“We can say,” al-Khatib added, “that civil war has already started in Yemen after failing to achieve a political breakthrough in Yemen that maintains the safety and security of the country.”

Saleh could have left power in “a different way than the other Arab presidents who faced or are still facing the political earthquake seen through the region,” added Tariq al-Homayed in the Saudi owned, London-based Asharq al-Awsat. But even though he had “all the chances to secure a respectable exit, he decided to proceed down a dead end in which he used all possible tricks.”

The most audacious of these, al-Hamid said, was Saleh’s effort to demonstrate unwavering Saudi support by giving a speech where he intentionally seated the chief editor of a Saudi paper next to him, “and started talking to him to give his Yemeni opponents the impression that Saudi Arabia had a position that was different from that of the other Gulf states, just because a man wearing the Saudi outfit was sitting next to him.”

What the Yemeni president did not realize, the author continued, “is that all his tricks have been depleted, and that his supporters are becoming fewer.”

Writing in another Saudi-owned, London-based daily, columnist Husam Itani agreed. “President Ali Abdullah Salih got what he wanted,” he wrote. After gambits that “did not exceed the level of street scams – he was able to push Yemen toward civil war.”

He was also, it seems, able to unite much of the Arab world against him.

(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)

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To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tobin Harshaw at +1-212-205-0367 or tharshaw@bloomberg.

-0- Jun/01/2011 16:17 GMT