What do you do when you run out of arguments? For some Arab and Iranian intellectuals the answer is simple: you brand your opponents as “agents” of foreign powers and pawns in a foreign-hatched “conspiracy”.
This is what happened in 2009 when millions of Iranians took to the streets to protest against a presidential election that they judged to be fraudulent.
Since there has been no independent investigation of the claim, no one could endorse or reject it. What is certain, however, is that the millions who took to the streets were ordinary Iranian citizens who felt humiliated by massive electoral fraud. They were nobody’s “agents”.
However, the leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei simply wouldn’t, or couldn’t understand, that fact.
More than two years later, he and his entourage have transformed their narrative of events into a sacred text that is beyond question. As prisoners of a dogmatic account, Khamenei and his entourage are no longer able to analyse what happened, let alone devise policies to deal with the consequences.
With the Syrian uprising heading for its ninth month, we are witnessing a similar flight from reality on the part of President Bashar al-Assad and his entourage.
Having run out of arguments, some al-Assad supporters have used the old trick of branding his opponents as “agents” and “conspirators.”
In return, one option would be to brand as “agents of the al-Assad regime” in a “conspiracy hatched in Damascus” all those who brand others as foreign “agents”.
However, that mutual name-calling would get us nowhere.
The reality is that Syria is going through the deepest crisis in its history as an independent country.
There is also no denying the fact that al-Assad cannot or does not want to even contemplate a political solution to the crisis. His latest statements and interviews indicate that he has put all his eggs in the basket of brutal repression. He has decided, or been made to decide, that only force might save his regime.
Paradoxically, al-Assad himself may be paving the way for foreign intervention in Syria just as Muammar Gaddafi did in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Al-Assad is doing that in three ways.
First, by deepening the crisis he is posing a threat to the security of neighbours, notably Jordan and Turkey, while generating instability in the Eastern Mediterranean. Often, instability in one country leads to neighbouring countries being sucked into a conflict that did not concern them initially. This is what happened with South Vietnam from 1950 to 1975 and Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979.
Next, al-Assad has become increasingly reliant on support from the Islamic Republic in Tehran. This is how the official Iranian news agency IRNA put the situation last week: “Syria under President Bashar al-Assad is part of the Islamic Republic’s defence perimeter against its enemies.” Translated into plain language this means that Iran has already been sucked into the Syrian crisis. Would it be surprising if Iran’s opponents regarded Syria as a battleground?
Third, by promoting the claim that the Syrian crisis is part of a broader struggle among rival foreign powers, al-Assad is making it more difficult for a national dialogue in search of a peaceful outcome.
Having rejected an “Arab solution”, al-Assad is also rejecting a “Syrian solution.” He is left with the hope of a military-security solution based on the calculation that if you kill enough people things would begin to calm down.
By encouraging his illusions, al-Assad’s apologists only give him more rope with which to hang himself.
The apologists believe that by branding the pro-democracy leaders as “agents” and the uprising as a “conspiracy” they would persuade the Syrian masses not to rattle their chains. However, they may provoke the opposite effect by persuading more Syrians that foreign help is needed and welcome in getting rid of the oppressor.
A people pushed into insurrectionary fervour will not think twice about the provenance of the help needed to obtain liberty.
Most revolutions that have succeeded were accompanied by some support from the outside, although whether or not such support was decisive in their victory is hard to establish.
Ask the French and they will tell you that the American Revolution, that is to say the emergence of the United States, was the result of France’s strategy to weaken England. Hundreds of French army and intelligence officers took part in the enterprise.
Next, ask the English and you would hear how the newly created US helped foment the French Revolution with the help of the pan-European network of the Illuminati.
More recently, didn’t the Germans buy Lenin a train ticket and help him return to Russia in secret to foment revolution?
In Iran in 1979, the Shah was persuaded that the revolution was a “conspiracy” hatched by US President Jimmy Carter and carried out by British and Russian “agents.”
More recently, we have heard the words “agent” and “conspiracy” from Gaddafi, Ben Ali, Saleh and Mubarak among others.
What al-Assad’s apologists do not understand is the relationship between internal and external factors in shaping events. If you have an egg and apply heat you may end up with a chicken. But if you have a stone and apply heat you will get nothing but a hot stone.
If Syria were not in a revolutionary mood, no outside power would have been able to push it in that direction. The only valid questions are: what forced Syria into revolutionary mood and what can be done to help it emerge from it with minimum damage?
The trouble for al-Assad is that Syria is in a revolutionary mood.
The trouble for Syria is that al-Assad is in denial.
The writer is a columist and political commentator. This article first appeared in Asharq Al Awsat on Dec. 16, 2011