Argument

Shame on the Arabs

Many Arab rulers have revealed their moral bankruptcy by rekindling ties with Syria and embracing a war criminal.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meets with Sudanese counterpart Omar al-Bashir in Damascus on January 12, 2008.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meets with Sudanese counterpart Omar al-Bashir in Damascus on January 12, 2008. ( LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)

In March, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA)—a nonprofit organization dedicated to conducting criminal investigations during wars, when there is no political will or capacity to engage existing public investigative bodies—will complete its final extensive investigation into the war crimes of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

The investigation is based on CIJA’s custodianship of more than 800,000 official cables from Syria’s four main intelligence and security services, which were obtained via CIJA’s work with human rights groups in the country. These agencies were responsible for guiding the massacres of nearly half a million people in the course of military operations by Assad’s forces and their foreign allies, most notably Russia and Iran. Once the investigation is completed, CIJA will be ready to bring 10 legal cases against Assad and his government for crimes against humanity (and an additional six against the Islamic State).

Despite these horrific war crimes, it was announced recently that a group of Arab countries has begun normalizing relations with Damascus after they were cut off in 2011, when mass killings and repression became the hallmarks of the civil war. Both Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates announced in late December 2018 that their embassies were reopening in Damascus. Flights between the two countries and Syria are also scheduled to restart soon. In addition, Egypt, Iraq, and even democratic poster child Tunisia have expressed support for Syria’s return to the Arab League.

Finally, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir—who has been accused of war crimes and is currently facing mass protests at home—recently visited Damascus and was greeted by his fellow war criminal Assad at the airport and then ushered to the presidential palace. According to Syria’s state-run news agency, SANA, the talks centered on restoring the relationship between the two countries “to the way it was before the war on Syria.” As for the Arab heavyweight Saudi Arabia, it cannot re-engage with Assad and his regime after the atrocities that have occurred, due to Riyadh’s unique historical connections and religious and tribal ties to the majority of Syria’s people.

The Arab approach to Syria and the latest rekindling of ties to Assad typify the incompetence and moral bankruptcy of a dozen of the region’s current rulers. The root cause of this malaise is the broken ethical compass that has long been steering the Arabs awry. A comparison between the European and Arab responses to war crimes offers a telling lesson. Pursuing the criminal warlords Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic with vigor following the Yugoslav civil war, the Europeans arrested and deported the butchers of Bosnia and Serbia, had them tried at The Hague for crimes against humanity for massacring Christian Croats and Bosnian Muslims, and sent them to die in prison. How does the Arab response to the genocide of fellow Arab Muslims in their midst compare? The butchers of Sudan and Syria, Bashir and Assad, are parading together gleefully in front of the cameras while the Arabs watch on with complete indifference.

As shameful and misguided as this about-face may be, Arab leaders have justified it on the premise that playing nice with Assad will draw him away from Iran and help curb the country’s malevolent influence in the region. The Arab countries, of course, are looking for any way they can to build a wall between Iran and the Arab world in the face of Tehran’s continued policies of destabilization through regional proxies. Iran-supported militias and terrorists have been wreaking havoc in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere for decades now and have become the primary anti-terrorist focus of the Arab states, especially now that the Islamic State and al Qaeda are nearly defeated.

However, the experience of Lebanon, where Western and Arab Gulf states showered billions of dollars in aid in a quixotic attempt to defeat Iran, shows that such an approach has not worked and will not work. In the wake of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, U.S., Arab, and European thinking was that if the Lebanese Army could be built up, then it would eclipse Hezbollah and cause its dissolution. But the opposite has occurred. Hezbollah is stronger than ever, the Lebanese Army now basically coordinates all its operations with the terrorist organization, and Iran’s influence in Lebanon has only increased.

This quagmire is a modern-day reincarnation of the great myth of the Campbell-Bannerman report. For decades, Arab leaders and intellectuals have placed their lands and people under the self-imposed shadow of an alleged fiction that harks back to the 1907 Imperial Conference in London and its host, then-British Prime Minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. It is the classic case of the Arabs blaming others for their predicament and coming up with any number of excuses to avoid addressing underlying and difficult problems.

As the myth goes, a white paper was commissioned on the Arab people and their lands within the British realm. The report supposedly emphasized that the Arabs controlled “spacious territories teeming with … resources” and that if “this nation were to be unified into one state, it would then take the fate of the world into its hands and would separate Europe from the rest of the world.” It also recommended several remedial actions to this predicament: promoting division in the region, establishing “artificial political entities that would be under the authority of the imperialist countries,” fighting against all kinds of unity, and the establishment of a “buffer state … in Palestine, populated by a strong, foreign presence that would be hostile to its neighbours and friendly to European countries and their interests.”

Yet scholars now know, thanks to the work of the University of Oxford Middle East expert Eugene Rogan, that the Campbell-Bannerman report was most likely never written. Nevertheless, the Arab leaders, who often seem to lack the ability to parse reality from fiction, have been living under its narrative for nearly a century. They seem more deeply invested than ever in realizing a false Edwardian agenda: The Arab people are deeply divided, the Arab League is an empty shell, and the Arab states are imploding or at each other’s throats. And many still blame—if only unconsciously—that imperialist Campbell-Bannerman and his many successors, such as Lord Curzon and High Commissioner Henry McMahon, for their role in dividing and weakening the Arab world under the British realm.

This, of course, is part of a larger problem. A quick reality check shows that the majority of Arab states do not exist to further clearly articulated objectives but instead exist to pursue whatever path of least resistance presents itself, regardless of reputation or efficacy. There is a total absence of progress on the security front. Again and again, efforts to coalesce the many Arab states into a united defense umbrella have failed, subjecting the region to the mercy of foreign powers like Iran and Turkey. Then there is the incessant inability to take on poverty, underdevelopment, and extremism and to generate the kind of diversified economic growth that would allow the Arab world to compete in the global marketplace with more than just natural resources and tourism.

Instead of living in the past, the Arabs need to accept the present. They must settle the differences among themselves so they can establish a consistent community capable of united action. They must work to improve, interconnect, and diversify their economies. And once unity, accountability, and prosperity have been implanted into the Arab milieu, the Arab world can start properly uniting to ward off the actual regional imperialists of today—Iran and Turkey.

For many years, Israel’s existence was said to be perpetuating Arab weakness. The country gave the Arab governments the perfect excuse to avoid the kinds of reforms necessary to become modern, strong, unified nations able to drive out foreign powers and genocidal dictators. Yet the myth of the Campbell-Bannerman report shows that the problem is much older than Israel: The Arabs have essentially embraced the myth’s defeatist, foreign, conspiratorial mindset, which strips them of any agency and places all blame abroad. The result has been a failure to build a sustainable world of their own.

Horrendous crimes have been committed in Syria, and unless the Arab world awakens from its long historical nightmare and musters the will to prosecute them in regional and international courts, it will continue to sink deeper and deeper into levels of impotence and division that only a supposed nemesis like Campbell-Bannerman could have devised.

Nawaf Obaid is a commissioner of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability and was a visiting fellow at Harvard University from 2012 to 2018. @NawafEObaid

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