This article was originally published on March 24, 2015.
Democracy, freedom, self-determination, human and individual rights are values that Arab liberals like myself thought we shared with the United States. That’s what you told us. For years, we’ve received training and attended workshops on democracy and freedom of expression sponsored by international NGOs and NGOs funded by the United States and the Europeans. We’ve been preached to by visiting American diplomats and think-tankers and journalists about the virtues of citizenship and democracy. We took plenty of notes. We’ve been told that if we speak out to defend our rights, we will be supported by America. And now we’ve been betrayed.
For many liberal Arab citizens like me, it looks like the United States is now taking sides in a sectarian conflict and turning a deliberate blind eye to violations of rights and values which are supposedly the core of what the United States represents. The United States is siding with the Shiites against the Sunnis. It is helping Assad, Hezbollah, and other allies of Iran stay in power. The United States has picked the Resistance axis over helping potential democracies to grow.
Last week, the pan-Arab newspaper Alhayat quoted a political source at the IAEA saying that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated during the negotiations that Hezbollah and Hamas now work within “the American framework” and for the same goal: combatting terrorism in Syria and Iraq. The reality on the ground proves this statement is accurate. The U.S. intelligence community has now removed Iran and Hezbollah from its list of states and organizations that support terrorism. Last year, Iran and Hezbollah were at the top of that list. Is the definition of “terrorism” really that flexible?
The Obama Administration is turning a blind eye to the people’s suffering in my country for the sake of a “deal” with the mullahs of Tehran. The result is that liberal middle-class people here must now rely on the patronage of the Gulf countries, with which they do not share any liberal or democratic values, while the rural working classes are more likely to join Islamist groups such as ISIS and Al-Nusra in order to protect their families and communities.
How Democracy Dies
In Lebanon, where I live, during the 10 years that followed the Cedar Revolution of 2005, which drove the Syrian army outside Lebanon, Hezbollah—an organization sponsored and directed by America’s new Iranian partner—has repeatedly used force to block every effort toward democracy or reform. Assassinations, bombings, and military invasions were some of the tools that the Party of God employed to intimidate the pro-Western March 14 political camp into surrendering the state.
Hezbollah today controls almost all state institutions and has made sure that they are never functional. My country does not have a president. The Parliament extended its own term, and services are deteriorating every day. Hezbollah wants to fight Iran’s war in Syria and needs the state institutions to get its legitimacy and freedom of movement across the border. Meanwhile, no one is allowed to object, because killing opponents has become a simple and easy task for the Party of God. No Hezbollah official has ever been held accountable for the party’s murders.
A deal between Iran and the United States will only strengthen Hezbollah and other Iranian militias in the region, and money will flow and ease the financial trouble. Killing will become much easier. Meanwhile, state institutions will further deteriorate and Lebanon, once a great example for democracy and liberty in the region, will disintegrate. We will become yet another governorate in Iran’s empire.
Other parts of the region are no better. Yemen and Iraq are also crumbling under Iran’s sectarian rule, which flourishes when state institutions are weak. Without the state, there are no citizens, only sects, followers, and violent militants. More Sunnis will join organizations like ISIS to fight more Shiites. But it seems that chasing a deal with Iran is more significant than making genuine efforts to maintain or help potential democracies in the region.
Abandoning Arab liberals and civil society to sectarian warfare seems to now be a valid compromise to make to Iran in return for the deal. Is this what the United States wants the region to become? A battleground for mad extremists? Is the nuclear deal worth that much blood? Are we that insignificant?
The values we thought we shared with the United States are no longer important to the Americans. I fear that we will be unable to uphold those values alone.
Iran and ISIS Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
In the wake of the Syrian uprising, Abdel Baset Al-Sarout, a Syrian soccer goalkeeper, became Homs’ most popular protest singer and a symbol of Syria’s peaceful protests. He was called “Bulbul (nightingale) of the revolution” because his moving chants kept peaceful protests alive despite the Assad regime’s crackdown. Peaceful protesters around Syria gathered around his revolutionary songs in the streets and called for freedom from Assad’s autocratic rule.
A few months through the uprising, and as Assad’s unrelenting violence increased, Al-Sarout took up arms and fought in Homs for more than two years, after which he was forced to surrender and escape due to a military siege that starved everyone in the city. Right before leaving Homs, Al-Sarout condemned the international community for abandoning Syrians and said that they had to surrender because they were betrayed by everyone and were left alone.
Meanwhile, ISIS was getting stronger and more popular in the North, and after Al-Sarout left Homs, reports and YouTube videos hinted that he has joined ISIS. It would actually be surprising if he didn’t. He wouldn’t have joined ISIS if he had a choice. Either he fights, or he leaves for Turkey. Al-Sarout couldn’t leave, so joining an Islamist militant group was his only option.
Al-Sarout was for a long time what the West likes to call a “moderate rebel.” What he didn’t expect was that the international community would actually choose a murderous dictator over a people’s desperate call for freedom. He didn’t imagine that the United States would ignore his people’s torment for the sake of a nuclear deal with Iran. He thought that his people’s call for freedom, democracy, and political rights would resonate with U.S. values. When they didn’t, his perception of these values changed.
Al-Sarout’s trajectory represents the story of many Syrians who moved from the street protests to the battle and then joined ISIS, Al-Nusra, or other Islamist groups in Syria. Al-Sarout and many others heard the international community repeatedly denounce Assad and his regime and listened to U.S. President Barack Obama draw one red line after another. They heard the talk but did not see the walk. On the contrary, they realized that the United States’ opening to Iran only strengthened Assad and his allies.
Al-Sarout was not an elite, liberal, or westernized Arab man. He was a soccer player. He and many rebels and activists chose to find refuge within Islamic militants because it was impossible for them to become liberal citizens. Their dictator did not allow it, and the international community did not care. Today they feel that they have no right to have the same aspirations that others in the world are entitled to.
Obama’s Mideast Legacy
The question today for people in the region is not whether there’s a nuclear deal with Iran or not. The problem is more fundamental. It is about what will become of the Middle East when our values and aspirations are shattered by betrayal and deception. Why is Iran, which has one of the worst human rights records in the region, and which has and still is using violence all over the region, a potential ally to the United States? Where do our liberal values stand?
The result of this abandonment will not only backfire in the region. The whole world will suffer the consequences. Europe is already considering tougher immigration policies due to both violence inside European cities and the increasing number of people trying to go to Europe from the region. Like Al-Sarout, more Sunnis will be radicalized, and ISIS—along with other Islamist groups—will grow stronger. And they will all blame the United States for both abandoning them and siding with Iran, Assad, and Hezbollah, who are today perceived by many Sunnis as the main enemies.
When Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, everyone—including Hezbollah and its supporters—thought that he shot himself in the foot, because such an act could not pass without punishment. We thought it could be a turning point here. Syria without Assad means a weaker Hezbollah in Lebanon, and eventually a weaker Iran. Syria without Assad means that all the killings, torture, and rape were not for nothing. But when Obama decided that the United States would not take military action against Assad, our hopes for justice were shattered. Syria with Assad still in power means that Iran has the final say in the region and that we all are inconsequential. Our deaths are simply collateral damage in the process of striking a big bargain so that Iran can get its nuclear bomb and rule our region.
Reality now tells us that today’s America does not care about our aspirations for freedom, for democracy, and for citizenship. The reality today says one thing: Take things into your own hands because no one will help you. The gap left by the United States will be filled with extremists who despise liberal ideas, freedom of speech, and democracy. Whatever is left of our civil society will eventually lose legitimacy, because its ideals and goals will be considered too liberal and Westernized for communities radicalized by sectarian tension. The people who will emerge from the societies that are formed along this sectarian model will not be good citizens of open societies. They will be locked in cages of hatred and fear. We know from experience how that story turns out.
I am frightened by what the future holds for the people of my country and my region. You should be, too.
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