In front of a packed audience in Cairo, Egypt’s president Mohammed Morsi announced that his government would be shutting down the Syrian embassy in Cairo and sending all Syrian diplomats home. Morsi also announced that he would recall his government’s officials home from Damascus and formally shut off ties with the Assad regime. Perhaps a bit late, but Morsi is signifying that he doesn’t agree with Assad’s violent repression of the rebellion against him, of his use of chemical weapons, and most importantly of Hezbollah’s involvement in the conflict.
Hezbollah, a Shi’a Islamic militant group and political party based in Lebanon, come from a land with as many sectarian problems as Syria. The organisation has been fighting alongside the Assad regime, with aid from Iran and Russia. They are percieved as ruthless fighters and were responsible for significantly damaging Lebanon in the country’s 15 year civil war. Their record with respect to obeying the rules of battle, torture, disposing of opposition and reconciliation is, to put it very mildly, insufficient.
Of course it is a bit more complicated than that. Hezbollah are major actors in both Lebanon and Syria, and also in regional politics. Their Shi’a leaning and anti-Western stance has won them many friends in Tehran (for whom they carried out many killings in the civil war), with Iraq’s Shi’a population, Shi’a groups across the Middle East and those opposed to the USA’s continued activity in the region. To be anti-American for some is to be pro-Hezbollah. That means supporting war, assassination and terrorism.
It is a curious tale of how Hezbollah care for Lebanon’s impoverished Shia and Palestinian refugee population, (the only ones who really do) and then help Assad target many of his own people using chemical weapons. Morsi’s move is bold and brave, he is right to disregard the group – they have not helped things in Syria. However his actions will generate possible detrimental consequences: he now risks putting Egypt’s relations with many other Arab states in jeopardy. Egypt, being something of a regional power and given their previous good relationship with Syria, – especially in the Cold War – it is possibly a game-changing move for the region as a whole.
Unfortunately, much of the opposition to Morsi’s decision seems to be down to sectarian hatred rather than solidarity with Syrian rebels. Egypt’s Sunni majority have spoken out favourably to the move against a Shi’a militant group. Whilst some do show solid support for the rebels, for others it is merely a gut move against a bitter enemy. Purely political, purely based on hatred, it is not exactly the way to build bridges.
There has also been huge opposition to Obama’s decision to arm the Syrian rebels. This was obviously a very risky move – the rebels are full of factions and the record of some groups is just as poor with respect to human rights as that of Assad. The question for Obama, and possibly for Cameron, is who to give arms to, how many, what they will be used for and what further action may be necessary? Covert action and military action seems out of the question. And furthermore, the idea of Western intervention has been very unpopular idea in Egypt as yet again, at least in most citizens’ eyes, the West would be seen to be sticking its nose in where it does not belong. Protesters seem favourable to Arab League aid to rebels, but if it is provided by the US, especially to the wrong rebel faction, the response from all around Egypt may be one of disgust.
Syria has lost yet another ally, and they just keep falling. It is very hard, even with strong ethnic and religious connections to maintain relations when you use chemical weapons on your own people. Morsi represents a ‘democratic Egypt’ whose role in Middle Eastern politics is still unclear. Assad still has Iran, Russia and Hezbollah on his side, and China have not tried hard to force Assad out of the country. Egypt’s move is representative of global defiance against the use of WMDs, but for the moment it will not be nearly enough to do anything huge to the conflict as it has no real teeth.
The game-changing moment will be the likely Israeli intervention to prevent Russia’s military aid becoming fully operational, and to stop Hezbollah becoming too powerful so that it invades Israel. The only thing stopping that at the moment is Israel’s superior capability and likely possession of nuclear weapons. Morsi has continued diplomatic relations with Israel, but would unlikely back them up in a conflict. The Egyptian president is right to end relations with Assad; there is no other moral option. How this plays out in regional security matters will be crucial.