Originally published on History News Network
Dr. Walid Phares is the author of The Lost Spring: US Policy in the Middle East and Catastrophes to Avoid. He advises members of the US Congress and the European Parliament on the Middle East
One single handshake between a man and a woman in Paris may have significant ripple effects across the Middle East and the Arab world; a handshake that should have happened long time ago between leaders of the region’s opposition movements struggling for more pluralistic countries in the region from North Africa to the Levant. Visiting Ms. Mariam Rajavi—the head of the Iranian Council of national resistance, Ahmad al Jarba—the President of the Syrian National Coalition—posed for a picture that will produce earth shattering effects for Damascus and Tehran. The two leaders in the photo represent the largest political opposition forces against the two members of the “Axis of Evil,” the Khomeinist regime of Iran and the Baathist regime of Syria. Commenting on this encounter, the Director of al Arabiya Abdul Rahman al Rashed, wrote:
“Meeting with Rajavi is a smart move because it’s the first practical response against the Iranian regime which is actually leading the war in Syria and supporting it with funds and manpower. There’s no longer a justification for the Syrian opposition to respect anything when dealing with the Iranian opposition. Engineer Mariam Rajavi is one of the figures who harm the Iranian regime the most, and the latter has failed to eliminate her.”
Indeed, for the Syrian opposition leadership to meet with the Iranian opposition’s most organized and effective group is a strategic move that should have happened months ago, or even at the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011. The encounter of the two opposition movements against the terror-enabling—and practicing—regimes in the region, particularly in Tehran and Damascus, is a logical response to the iron clad collaboration between the two regimes, now fighting a joint war in Syria against the uprising and cooperating against Arab moderate countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. As an observer of democracy movements in the Middle East for more than three decades, my question is not about what such convergence might produce, which is easy to answer. Rather, my question is: Why didn’t such a counter-axis come to life years ago, even as early as the 1980s?
Historians will rapidly discover that the two opposition movements were failed by the democratic system due to the significant lobbying power possessed by the two regimes within the West, particularly in the 1990s. Though Tehran and Damascus’ ruling elites were perceived as terrorists by Washington and many of its allies, the Syro-Iranian axis managed to block their respective oppositions from gaining traction within the West, let alone to coming together as a joint regional force. The Assad regime skillfully discredited its opponents—both Syrians and Lebanese—for many years within the Beltway. It was only after the Iraq invasion of 2003 that the Bush administration moved seriously against the Syrian regime and helped push it out of Lebanon. The Iranian opposition, particularly the PMOI, was branded by Tehran as “terrorists” while half of the region’s terror networks were commanded by the Ayatollahs. Stunningly, the most efficient Iranian opposition network was sanctioned as “terrorist” under the Clinton Administration, delaying the weakening of the Khomeinist regime by more than a decade.
Incredibly, the bad guys in the region were manipulating U.S. policy on their own oppositions, a Machiavellian achievement to be analyzed in political deception studies. In 2009, the Iranian opposition was abandoned by the Obama administration while at the same time the White House was labeling Assad as a reformer. During such faulty foreign policy times, it was barely possible for the two opposition movements to sustain survival, let alone to unite their efforts. In 2011, the golden opportunity to come together for Syrian and Iranian oppositions was again missed. Had Washington managed to strengthen the PMOI inside Iraq and help Syria’s opposition set up bases in that same country while U.S. and Coalition forces were still in charge, the Assad and Khomeini regimes would have been countered with serious and challenging opposition movements solidly based in Iraq. But the Obama administration acted in the Middle East to satisfy U.S. domestic politics. It evacuated Iraq by the end of the year without any guarantee for the MEK’s Camp Liberty, which was ravaged by local pro-Iranian forces. And by neglecting to back a moderate opposition in Syria during that same year, it lost a strategic opportunity to end the horrors in that country.
Three years later, the two opposition movements are probably realizing that coming together is a smart move, regardless of U.S. foreign policy. By simply meeting for a photo op, they have already changed the psychology of regional politics. The main lesson here is that democracy forces in the Middle East have now realized that they need to follow the interests of their people, even in the absence of Washington’s backing. Egypt’s Tamarod movement organized a revolt against the Muslim Brotherhood in spite of the Obama administration’s partnership with Morsi’s regime. The Tunisian liberals rose against the Washington-backed Islamic Nahda. In Libya, General Haftar has moved against the Islamist militias which were identified as the NATO-backed “rebels” against Gaddafi even while one of these militias killed an American ambassador and his colleagues in Benghazi. It seems that an independent political wave has started. An alliance of peoples is rising against the various “axes of evil,” against Jihadists or Iranian-backed forces.
The Syrian opposition is tired of the ineffective and lax U.S. initiatives on Syria, and the Iranian opposition is frustrated with the U.S. granting Iran’s regime more recognition via the “interim nuclear agreement.” The Jarba-Rajavi meeting may not reverse the Tehran-Damascus offensive in the region…yet. But a historic momentum has been created.