These days, the Arab media are full of reports about diplomatic activities regarding the Syrian issue, and commentators’ articles dealing with this matter fill whole pages in the newspapers of the Arab world. They all try to ascertain if there will be an American military action, what its scope will be, how powerful it will be, what its goals will be, how long it will last, and especially, what the consequences of the action will be. But there is one important voice which is almost not heard at all in this whole chorus of analysts – the Saudi voice – and it seems that someone there – the king? – may have imposed a gag order on the commentators.
To get a deeper understanding of the reason for this, I contacted a Saudi colleague, with whom I correspond occasionally. He is a member of the royal family, but is not in the inner circles of decision making. Nevertheless, he is well acquainted with the way the Saudi leaders think, he is aware of the considerations and feelings that drive it and has a deep understanding of what is said and what is not said there. At first he refused to speak, and only after a “preliminary conversation” did he consent. This is how it is in the Middle East: everything is based on personal relationships, and Arabic is the entry bridge into the emotions of the region’s people.
He preferred to speak about “The Gulf,” not Saudi Arabia, in order to present a united front regarding the events in Syria and its environs. This is not exactly correct, because the positions of Saudi Arabia (which is the main supplier and supporter of the Salafi fighters in Syria) and those of Qatar (which stand behind the Free Syrian Army), are not identical, and the United Arab Emirates is much more active than Oman. But despite the differences in approach among the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, their basic attitudes are very similar.
My colleague hinted at an important aspect of Middle Eastern character, which is “murou’a” – “manliness.” A man will always be sure to act according to rules of manly conduct, and will make every effort to avoid feminine patterns of behavior. Emotionality and whining are considered feminine qualities that express weakness, while a male is expected to keep a cool head and emotional balance and remain calm and functional even in difficult and complex situations. It seems that the Saudi government’s silence during the last few days stems from this characteristic. One could say that the greater the internal emotional stress, the quieter and more relaxed the Arab man will try to appear. It relates to the obsession with honor, because if a man sounds like a woman he is considered contemptible.
The longer the conversation continued, the more open it became, and the more my colleague complained about the Western world in general and the United States in particular. “You (he included Israel in the Western world) speak all the time about human rights, so why are you quiet about what is happening in Syria? After chemical weapons have been used ten times, you still do not manage to find a reason to eliminate Asad? Are two hundred thousand fatalities not enough to bring you out of your complacency? Is issuing condemnations the only thing you can do? Making threats without carrying them out? You have all of the proof you need to do what you said you would do, so why are you not doing what you promised?” And then came the knockout question: “Is the Libyan’s blood redder than the Syrians’? Or maybe Libyan oil is blacker than Syrian oil?” These things were said somewhat scornfully, because the coalition of Europe and America attacked Qadhaffi for less terrible things than Asad is doing.
I asked him: “So how should the Arab world deal with a mass murderer?” He answered with a rhetorical question: “Don’t you know what Saudi Arabia has done and is still doing for the Syrian people?” He was referring to what Saudi Arabia usually does: it gives money, lots of money, for purposes that it believes in. Saudi Arabia – and all of the other Gulf countries – have poured many billions of dollars into the Syrian rebellion to pay the fighters, to buy weapons, ammunition, communication devices and civilian aid, and even to bring women to Syria in order to “serve” the fighters. Saudi Arabia funds training camps in other countries that train fighters to join the fight against Asad in Syria.
The Saudi activities are what put Asad into the military and emotional state where he felt that he had to use a doomsday weapon, a chemical weapon. And if it hadn’t been used on August 21st, Damascus would have been conquered by trained, armed and equipped troops who came in from a neighboring country after Saudi Arabia had participated in funding their training, and they situated themselves the night before August 21 in the Eastern suburbs of Damascus. Asad understood that if he did not destroy these troops with gas – together with the citizens that the troops were hiding among, using them as human shields – the troops would take control of the government institutions in Damascus and his rule would come to an end, along with himself.
The Saudis were on the brink of victory, and Asad’s use of gas took it away from them. That’s why they are so angry with Asad, and with the West as well, which did not take the necessary steps immediately, to act without discussions, without votes, without Congress and without Parliament. They are concerned that Obama never intended to act in Syria, and all of his fiery speeches about red lines and what would happen if those red lines were crossed, were only words, which he had no intention of carrying out. My colleague used the expression “the roar of a mouse” to describe Obama’s words.
But the Saudis cannot attack Obama personally, because they still depend on him to deal with the great, real, serious threat to their east, Iran. They heard the words of the “moderate,” “reformist” (my colleague laughed when he said these words) Iranian president very well when he said this week that Iran will not give up one iota of its nuclear rights. He attributes this declaration to the West’s weak behavior in the Syrian issue. He used an Arabic expression meaning that Iran completely ignores the United States.
He doesn’t believe that Asad will give up his chemical weapons, and he will do any sort of trick in order to conceal them and hide what he has in his stockpiles of death. The Russians have won a big victory over the United States, and they are taking advantage of Europe’s lack of will to use force. And in general, what is all this business about giving up chemical weapons? Can a murderer’s punishment be mitigated by confiscating the pistol that he used to commit murder? What kind of ethical or legal standard is that? Why don’t they even issue an international arrest warrant against al-Assad to bring him to justice in the International Criminal Court? How is he different from Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Milosevic of Yugoslavia?
According to my Saudi colleague, Iran is the big winner in the whole Syrian fiasco. Iran is reaping the fruits of its success in Iraq, because of the thousands of Americans that Iran killed in Iraq between the years 2003 and 2010, which will deter the United States from becoming involved in Syria. This is how Iran has acquired Iraq – where Iran now has unlimited control – and Syria. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards fight on Asad’s side in Syria, despite it being a violation of Security Council resolutions, and no country does a thing.
The ruling family of Saudi Arabia is concerned, very concerned, that the weakness that the West conveys regarding Syria today will also be reflected in the way the West relates to Iran, and that if Iran takes some action against Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries in the future, the West will not have the strength and the courage to emerge from its impassivity and support Saudi Arabia on the day of reckoning. The Saudis are tense and concerned, and this is the reason for the quiet from Saudi Arabia during these trying days.
It may be that in the Middle East there are more countries whose leaders are quite concerned about the future of the Middle East and the world in general.
Translated from Hebrew by Sally Zahav with permission from the author.Dr. Mordechai Kedar
About the Author: Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Ph.D. Bar-Ilan U.) Served for 25 years in IDF Military Intelligence specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena. A lecturer in Arabic at Bar-Ilan U., he is also an expert on Israeli Arabs.
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