Syria’s Tragedy: A Different Narrative

Beyond all the reporting about Syria’s conflict and carnage and the fall of Aleppo to government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are important backstories and narratives that seldom, if ever, make it into print. Some of them provide background, content, and perspective supportive of Dr. Imad Harb’s recent essay for the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ Analyses and Assessments series.

Dr. Harb took issue with President-elect Trump’s allegations that Syria has no strategic significance for the United States. Beyond the numerous rationales to the contrary that Dr. Harb so effectively provided – his line of reasoning is powerful and persuasive – the following are further considerations.

Taken individually, these phenomena do not equal the force of the zeroed-in strategic perspective that is a feature of Dr. Harb’s essay. Considered collectively, however, it would be hard to argue that, beyond the immediate and dire humanitarian issues that cry out for an effective rescue and relief response, Syria, for so many additional reasons, is not of immense strategic importance.

Humanity’s Treasures

The classical and modern day country that is, or at least was, Syria – which for the longest time was one of the world’s richest open-air museums and which brims with archaeological treasures – remains at once immense and diverse. Buried in its lands are the relics and remains of those who paved the way before modern peoplehood came to be and whom those with ancestries rooted in the so-called West are the descendants of, including the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Elamites, Nestorian Chaldeans, Greeks, Romans, and many, many more.

In my sixteen visits to Syria in the 1980s and 1990s, one curator of its treasures after another declared that, of the nearly 450 archaeological sites in the country, the number that had been opened was only forty. When the dust of the rebels’ defeat subsides and a sense of normalcy returns to the country, it would seem fair to ask what, therefore, awaits humanity in the gems of insight into human history and heritage that lie beneath Syria’s lands?

With the devastation visited upon Syria these past five years still unfolding, the ensuing losses to knowledge echo the tragically near identical earlier and continuing ones tossed to the winds next door. Indeed, they bear an indelible footprint from the ongoing American-induced chaos – in Rafidain, or historical Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers – in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Palmyra, northeast of Damascus in the Syrian desert, contains the ruins of one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world. Standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, its art and architecture married Greco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. Palmyra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. It has suffered significant damage during periods of occupation by ISIS. Photo: Dr. John Duke Anthony, mid-1990s.

In one of the first acts accompanying America’s trampling of Iraq’s sovereignty and ending its political independence in 2003, U.S. soldiers, ordered to seize control of the Ministry of Petroleum, sped past the country’s unsurpassed historical museum. In so doing, to the delight of vandals, they left not only the museum, but also the priceless remains of numerous other Iraqi archaeological sites, together with numerous weapons depots, unguarded.

The world’s immediate and lasting response was massive and pervasive disbelief. As if in one voice, many asked: “How could such a powerful America be so mindless of the moral and humanistic obligation to protect one of the world’s richest storehouses of knowledge and understanding related to humankind’s destinies and its earliest achievements and limitations since time immemorial?”

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GCC-U.S. Relations Under a Trump Administration

By Dr. John Duke Anthony and Fahad Nazer

The results of the U.S. Presidential Election last month confounded most American political pundits and many professional pollsters. Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton also surprised many observers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (the GCC is comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates). Almost immediately after the result was announced, though, it became clear that leaders from the region were ready to embrace the new President-elect and prepared to quickly adjust to the new political reality.

Within hours, GCC officials congratulated President-elect Trump. They expressed a desire to strengthen the decades-old partnerships between their respective countries and the United States. According to at least one Saudi Arabian news outlet, President-elect Trump conveyed a similar sentiment to King Salman. The two reportedly spoke by telephone within hours of the election results. Each side appears to be fully aware of what lies ahead. All appreciate how difficult it will be to overcome the unprecedented political violence and insidious sectarianism that has convulsed seven of the 22 Arab countries in recent years.

Proactive Aspirations

Numerous observers in the GCC countries have expressed hope that President-elect Trump’s administration will adopt a proactive approach to the turmoil in the region. Others are particularly eager to ascertain what, if anything, he may do differently than the Obama administration regarding the threat posed by militant groups like the so-called Islamic State. Just as importantly, there is anticipation that the new President will take seriously the GCC’s deep concerns about Iran’s policies in the Arab world.

Leaders from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates at the recent 37th Gulf Cooperation Council Heads of State Summit in Bahrain. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

The reference to the latter concern is especially Tehran’s support of militant non-state actors like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen as well as what further assistance it may extend to the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. It is difficult, of course, at this early stage to ascertain the contours of what may, at some point, become known as the “Trump Doctrine.” Even so, important lessons can be drawn from history.

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Riyadh’s View of Tehran: An Accentuated Deficit of Trust

Context and history are necessary to understand Saudi Arabia’s decision earlier this month to sever diplomatic ties with Iran. After the storming of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran – a response to Saudi Arabia’s execution of the Shi‘i leader Nimr al-Nimr on January 2 – Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced the cutting of ties. In doing so, he noted that Iran’s aggression is “a violation of all agreements and international conventions” and called it part of an effort by Iran to “destabilize” the region. “We are determined not to allow Iran to undermine our security,” he said.

A sentiment echoing the same tone and spirit while underscoring this Saudi Arabian position of sovereignty and agency in the face of international conflict, and which could just as well have been directed at the recent American media barbs thrown at the kingdom, was conveyed more than two years ago. In an op-ed for the New York Times on December 17, 2013, Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United Kingdom Prince Mohammad Bin Nawaf Bin Abdulaziz Al Sa‘ud explained,

Saudi Arabia has enormous responsibilities within the region, as the cradle of Islam, and one of the world’s most significant political powers. We have global responsibilities – economic and political – as the world’s de facto central banker for energy. And we have a humanitarian responsibility to do what we can to end the suffering in Syria. We will act to fulfill these responsibilities, with or without the support of our Western partners.

The flood of media attacks against Saudi Arabia since the executions has been nonstop. For example, the Iranian policymaker Seyed Hossein Mousavian published an article titled “14 Reasons Why Saudi Arabia is a Failed Mideast Power.” And the New York Times printed an op-ed by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that provided his view, containing unproven statements, of what transpired and the issues involved.

Flames and smoke rise from Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran during a demonstration on January 2, 2016. Photo: REUTERS/TIMA/Mehdi Ghasemi/ISNA.

Because there has yet to appear a different perspective on these matters except for the op-ed by Foreign Minister al-Jubeir in today’s New York Times, this writer, an American who has visited the kingdom often over the past 46 years, is moved to also contribute to the national dialogue on these matters.

He writes as though he were in the shoes of an observer in Riyadh. What such an observer might argue in reply to the media campaign against their country would likely include the following and should be read as quotations.

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Introducing the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ New Article Series, “National Council Analyses and Assessments”

When the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations was established in 1983 and announced that its mission would be education, it stated that serving as a clearinghouse for information and insight would be one of its functions. To that end, the Council is delighted to announce the latest in its initiatives, an online article series titled “National Council Analyses and Assessments.”

The National Council will seek to produce regularly a concise article on an aspect of U.S.-Arab relations or the Arab world, from Morocco to the Gulf and from Baghdad to Berbera and points in between. The authors will hail from across the globe. Each will have deep knowledge. All will have lived experience of the Arab world. The series will attempt to deliver unique analyses and views on contemporary affairs and policies. It will also seek to provide a forum for pieces on broader issues such as women’s rights, climate change, and economic reform.

It is to be expected that readers have various outlets from which to choose for material on the Arab world and U.S. foreign relations. With that in mind, a purpose of the series will be to furnish readers with exceptional, thoughtful, and timely content difficult if not impossible to find elsewhere. Each piece will be chosen and edited with careful consideration of the issues at hand and an appropriate specialist to examine them.

For the launch of the series, two pieces on issues of importance are offered by dynamic, credible, and seasoned voices.

Imad Harb, Distinguished International Affairs Fellow at the National Council and an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, discusses the array of poor policy options that the Obama administration faces in regard to Syria. He concludes that the president will likely continue to battle ISIS from the air, reject calls for American boots on the ground, and rely increasingly upon GCC country friends, allies, and strategic partners to support the fight against the government in Damascus.

Michael C. Hudson, Professor Emeritus at Georgetown University, former longtime director of the university’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, and a member of the National Council’s International Advisory Committee, writes on the crisis of the Arab state in the current, post-uprisings period. “Until effective leadership emanating from society emerges,” he writes, “the Arab center — the millions of ordinary citizens who rose up — will remain on the periphery.”

The National Council’s hope is that as many people as possible will become regular and avid readers of the series. To that end, anyone’s and everyone’s comments and suggestions will be welcomed and appreciated.

John Duke Anthony, Ph.D., Founding President and CEO, National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations