Adrian Hamilton: Iraq, Iran, and the demonisation of Syria

The worse things get in Iraq, the more the occupiers blame outsiders for their troubles
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There are not many votes at the moment in defending the Syrians, any more than the Iranians. And, truth to tell, it is peculiarly difficult to find anything in their favour.

Syria is now an imploding country with a weak president, a deteriorating economy, a fractious minority ruling class and a government breaking down into competing security structures. If the world at large finds it so easy to believe that Damascus was behind the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, it is because it fits in so easily with the general pattern of its behaviour in Lebanon.

If the world has been so quick to put the worst interpretation on President Ahmadinejad's remarks in Tehran, it is because they seem so characteristic of the new "purist" approach to power in Iran. And yet there is something about the way that everyone is ganging up on Syria and Iran at present that makes one ask in whose interest is all the fuss.

For a start, there is the sheer hypocrisy of Western condemnation. What Syria is accused of, after all, is no different in kind or law than Israel's long-standing policy of targeted assassination of its opponents outside its borders. Anyone doubting both the amorality and the ruthlessness of this policy need only have watched the BBC's recent and revelatory series on the Middle East peace talks. It was not only the casualness with which Israeli politicians discussed knocking off the targeted individuals and their families but the extent to which they were ready to use such killings as a means of stopping any peace talks in progress.

Two wrongs don't make a right, of course, but the lack of condemnation of Israeli assassinations is none the less outrageous for being so taken for granted. And it does not go unnoticed in a Middle East which has now come to assume Western policies in the region as self-interested and one-sided.

In the same way, in the gathering chorus over Iran's nuclear intentions we hear not a word about Israel's existing weaponry nor a raised eyebrow over Washington's support for India's nuclear power programme (in breach of all Congressional resolutions) on condition that it join in with the referral of Iran to the UN Security Council.

Far more worrying than the hypocrisy, however, is the intention behind the current attempt to isolate and punish Syria and Iran. If it were Iran's nuclear ambitions and Syria's criminal responsibility for the assassination of a foreign politician that were at issue, then policies of carrot and stick would be developed to influence those outcomes.

Instead, Washington and London, this time with support for its own reasons from France, are deliberately upping the ante and using the specifics to bludgeon Damascus and Tehran.

The reasons are Iraq and Middle East peace. Iran and Syria are Iraq's biggest neighbours. The worse the conditions get in Iraq, the more the occupying forces blame outsiders for their troubles. There may be truth in this, but there is also the farcical position of London and Washington declaring that Iraq's neighbours have no right to an interest in developments there while they can control development thousands of miles away.

There was a moment early on when both Syria and Iran were desperate to play a constructive and co-operative role in Iraq. Both were rejected and their legitimate interests dismissed.

In the same way, the more the early hopes of Middle East peace following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza have evaporated under the harsh light of Israel's continuing settlement of the West Bank, the more convenient it has become to blame Iran and Syria for stirring up trouble from the outside. They may be doing so. But it is not their influence which is responsible for the continuing popularity of Hamas within the Palestinian territories nor the strength of Hizbollah in southern Lebanon.

Admittedly, neither Damascus nor Tehran have helped their causes by their recent belligerence. But that does not mean that they don't have a case. Iran does have a right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty of which it is a signatory to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes and there is no proof, despite its covert actions, that it is actively developing nuclear weapons as such.

The likelihood that Syria was involved in Hariri's assassination is pretty high. Yet Damascus is quite justified in saying that assumption is not in itself proof of misdeed, that the accusations of the UN investigator, Detlev Mehlis, are based so far on the evidence of only one witness, and that the demands being made on Syria to answer charges and to render up its most senior figures are designed more to humiliate than to encourage the pursuit of truth.

There are some in Washington who clearly want to use these issues to force regime change and are already busily funding dissident groups in Iran and Syria to accelerate it. One's fear, however, is that it is not regime change that America wants, but regime neutering, that what Washington seeks with London in its tow is Syria and Iran pinioned in a corner, weakened by sanctions, isolated from the world and thus rendered impotent in Iraqi and Middle East affairs. You can see the point in diplomatic terms but, if it does turn out to be the objective, it will be a terrible betrayal of the people of Syria and Iran. They will be the ones who suffer.