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memri
April 17, 2018 No.
7432

Following The West's Attack On Syria, Sharp Dispute Breaks Out Between Egypt That Wants Assad To Remain, And Saudi Arabia That Now Wants Him Gone

On April 14, 2018, about a week after the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad carried out a chemical attack on the town of Douma near Damascus that killed dozens, the U.S., U.K. and France launched a joint military strike on regime bases and facilities associated with its chemical weapons capabilities. The attack threw into sharp focus the controversy between the two leaders of the Arab world,  Egypt and Saudi Arabia – on the Syrian issue.[1] Even before the strike occurred, Saudi Arabia expressed firm support for military action against the Syrian regime, and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman expressed willingness to take part in such action, "should this become necessary."[2]

Shortly before the attack, a columnist in the Saudi government daily 'Okaz even called on the U.S. to target Assad's palace in Damascus in order to deter him from using chemical weapons again.[3] After the attack, the Saudi authorities welcomed it, while articles in the Saudi press criticized the U.S. and its allies for not launching a more substantial strike that could alter the power balance on the ground.

In contrast, Egypt criticized the Western countries for attacking Syria. Egypt's Foreign Ministry expressed concern over the "military escalation" in Syria that threatened the Syrian people, and implied that Egypt doubted the U.S. claims that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons in Douma, calling for "a transparent international investigation" of the events in the town.[4] The government and pro-government Egyptian press went further, expressing support for the Syrian regime and calling the Western attack an unjustified act of aggression. One article even claimed that the U.S. had supplied the rebel organizations with chemical weapons so they would carry out attacks on civilians that would then be blamed on the Syrian regime.

Other articles criticized Russia and Iran for not lifting a finger to repel the attack, although both have forces in Syria.

This report reviews the reactions in Saudi Arabia and Egypt to the U.S.-British-French military strike in Syria.

Egypt: The Attack Was A Mistaken And Unjustified Act That Will Only Complicate The Situation In Syria

As stated, Egypt criticized the attack, calling it an escalation of the hostilities that could sabotage the efforts, especially on the part of Russia, to establish ceasefires in Syria (ceasefires which, it should be noted, benefit the Syrian regime and its allies). Egypt even expressed doubt that the Syrian regime was responsible for the attack in Douma. A statement issued by the foreign ministry several hours after the Western attack said: "Egypt expresses its grave concern over the present military escalation in the Syrian arena, due to its implications for the security of our brothers, the Syrian people and since it threatens the understandings that have been reached regarding the de-escalation zones.[5] Egypt stresses its complete opposition to the use in Syria of any type of weapon that is prohibited by international [law], and demands to conduct a transparent international investigation into this matter, based on the international mechanisms and sources of authority. Egypt expresses its solidarity with the Syrian people as they strive to realize their aspirations to live in security and stability and maintain their national capabilities and the integrity and unity of their land through comprehensive understanding among all the political elements in Syria, far from the attempts to destroy their aspirations and hopes. Egypt calls upon the international community and the superpowers to carry out their responsibility of pushing for a peaceful solution to the Syria crisis…"[6]

Egyptian presidential spokesman Bassam Radi also expressed concern about the "latest escalation" and support for the Assad regime, saying that Egypt supports "legitimate governments and national armies."[7] 

Much fiercer opposition to the Western attack on Syria was voiced in the Egyptian press, which called it "aggression." Headlines in the Al-Masri Al-Yawm daily on the day following the attack read "Tripartite Aggression against Syria," "Syria in the Inferno of the Tripartite Military Aggression," and "The [act of] Aggression at Dawn Will Cause Volcanoes of Rage to Erupt and Let Loose The Winds of Partition."[8] An article in the same issue stressed that "despite the political disagreements and the discrepancy [in positions] between Cairo and Damascus, the relations between Egypt and Syria remain historic." It also likened the attack on Syria to the 1956 war  in which British, French and Israeli forces invaded Sinai after Egyptian president Gamal 'Abd Al-Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, saying that the two countries thus have both dreams and painful memories in common.[9]


Headline in Al-Masri Al-Yawm: "Syria in the Inferno of the Tripartite Military Aggression"

Other articles in the Egyptian government press claimed that the military strike violated international law and was also unjustified, because there was no proof that it was Assad who had used the chemical weapons. The articles claimed further that this attack was meant to save the "terrorists," i.e., the rebel organizations, after they had failed in their action against the Syrian regime, and that it would exacerbate the suffering of the Syrian people. Some of the articles even condemned the Syrian regime's allies, Iran and Russia, and accused them of betraying the regime by failing to repel the Western attack. 

Al-Ahram Editorial: The Attack Is A Replay Of The U.S. Invasion Of Iraq In 2003

An editorial of the government daily Al-Ahram published one day before the attack warned about the implications of Western military action, adding that the accusations currently leveled at the Syrian regime were reminiscent of the accusations leveled at the Iraqi regime before America's 2003 invasion of Iraq, which turned out to be false. The editorial said: "The Syria crisis has become an arena of conflict between the large superpowers, [who wish] to display [their] weight in the unfair international [power-]balance that is never inclined towards law or justice... America's threat to target Syria is outrageous and unjustified, for destroying Syria's capabilities undermines the existing institutions that safeguard the country's sovereignty and territorial [integrity]. History seems to be repeating the scenario [of Iraq in 2003], in which U.S. president George [W.] Bush decided to attack Iraq on the pretext that it had biological weapons. After Iraq was destroyed, this proved to be a big lie and British prime minister Tony Blair confessed to this crime, but his admission changed nothing, and the whole world saw the destruction wreaked in Iraq...

"The stench of war thickens the air, and the look in the eyes of small children anticipating an unknown disaster reveals [their] terror and anxiety. [In this situation,] sane people must intervene in order to prevent the war and the attack on Syria and seek binding political solutions to end the prolonged tragedy that the Syrian people are suffering inside and outside their country...

"The world does not need intercontinental military strikes. It needs political solutions that safeguard people's lives and liberty, and cut off funding to the terror organizations that are destroying the world and are the enemy of all growth and progress. Arab Syria is in our hearts, and we beseech Allah to protect its soil and its people and expel all the forces that harm it, [so that it may] rejoin the Arab fold."[10]


Al-Ahram cartoon: The "new imperialism" attacks the "Arab homeland" (Al-Ahram, Egypt, April 16, 2018)

Al-Ahram Editorial: The Attack Only Deepens The Tragedy Of The Syrian People

Al-Ahram's editorial on the day after the attack called it a mistaken move that only complicated the situation in Syria, and urged the Arabs to take advantage of the April 15, 2018 Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia to formulate a joint Arab position and promote a political solution to the Syria crisis. The editorial said: "Every sign and indication suggests that any escalation [of the hostilities] in our sister [country] Syria, including the American-French-British airstrike, will only complicate the tragedy of the Syrian people. Every day proves how correct Egypt was in its consistent demand to adopt a political solution [for the crisis] in this woebegone country and eschew a military solution. Everyone knows that Egypt's position on the use of unconventional weapons by any side whatsoever is as clear as day. But Egypt believes just as firmly that any external intervention in Syria's affairs will cause further deterioration. Now we are seeing external forces being dragged into [action that] exacerbates the conflict. And what is the result? Further collapse and deterioration and further loss of innocent lives every day.

"It was no coincidence that this tripartite attack in Syria came one day before the [Arab League] summit in Al-Dhahran, and it compels the summit to hurry up and arrive at a unified [Arab] position on resolving the Syria crisis. That is what all the Arabs expect and hope for...

"Can the Arabs do anything? Yes, they can. They have means of pressure and persuasion that will enable them to accrue many achievements, provided they agree on a unified message. The solution is for all the warring parties in Syria to return to the negotiation table, and the Arabs must help them to do so."[11]

Al-Ahram Columnist: The U.S. Supplied The Rebels With Chemical Weapons

Al-Ahram columnist Ahmad 'Abd Al-Tawwab repeated the claim that there was no evidence that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons, adding that the U.S. had supplied such weapons to the rebels so it could implicate the Syrian regime. He wrote: "Can anyone [really] believe that the missile strikes launched by the U.S., Britain and France... against Syria were motivated by humanitarian concerns? Do the attackers [really] believe that anyone will buy their blatant propaganda, as they use high-flown language to condemn what they call 'the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians' without a single shred of tangible evidence? Those who follow [events] cannot forget the grave reports that have been circulating for years about an American plan that involved smuggling chemical weapons from Libya via Turkey to Syria and delivering them to the terror organizations associated with the U.S., to use against Syrian civilians when [the U.S.] ordered them to. The U.S. pretends to be innocent and issues declarations convicting the Syrian regime, [so it will have] an excuse to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad for using prohibited chemical weapons against his people!...

"We must remember that the recent strikes come after the U.S. and its allies failed [to achieve their goals] on the ground and after their terror gangs were forced to surrender. The strikes did not rely on any investigation proving that the Syrians were indeed guilty of the 'crime.' It was the other way around: [a delegation] on behalf of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons departed [for Syria] to investigate [the chemical attack in Douma only] several hours after [the Western] attack took place!"[12]

Al-Ahram Columnist: The Attack Was Meant To Serve Trump's Interests In The Gulf

Dr. 'Amru 'Abd Al-Sami', a political researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies and a columnist for Al-Ahram, wrote that the U.S. administration had taken an exclusive decision while ignoring Congress and  the Pentagon, and without the support of the UN, so as to promote its interests in the Gulf. "The U.S. strikes," he stated, "were carried out without the backing of the UN, which permits the use of force under Chapter 7. This means that the American presidency continues to make exclusive decisions in order to safeguard what seem to be its current interests in the Gulf states, while creating an illusion of delivering a blow to the Iranian presence in Syria... So far, it seems that these strikes are carried out for the benefit of the television [cameras], in order to intimidate Iran or force President Assad to negotiate according to Western terms."[13]

Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' Editor: The Attack Only Strengthens The Terrorists

Dandarawi Al-Harawi, executive editor of the Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' daily, which is close to the Egyptian regime, expressed support for the Assad regime and said that the objective of the strike was to strengthen the "terrorists," i.e., the Syrian rebels, after they had been defeated in their last holdouts in the Eastern Ghouta near Damascus. He wrote: "The last seven years have seen the destruction of a peaceful, stable and economically prosperous homeland. The dogs of the denizens of Hell [i.e., the Syrian rebels], who were let loose by Qatar and Turkey on orders from the usual forces of evil – the U.S., Britain, France and Israel – marketed false tales about the corrupt and dictatorial [character] of the Al-Assad family and about the denial of personal freedoms and human rights [in Syria]. Sadly, some gullible Syrians believed this, and the Muslim Brotherhood horrifically exploited this to concoct a plot to cast Syria into the abyss of destruction and anarchy!

"Recently, after the Arab Syrian army managed to liberate almost 90% of its soil and after the dogs of the denizens of Hell were expelled from Ghouta, the U.S., with the support of its lackeys Britain, France and Israel, decided to attack Syria and allow the terrorists to retake Ghouta, Aleppo and Rif Damascus..."

"Let us say once again: Syria will be victorious, and the Arab Syrian army is [still] Egypt's First Army."[14]

Al-Ahram Article: Iran And Russia Betrayed The Syrian  Regime When They Did Nothing To Repel The Attack

Some of the articles published in the Egyptian press against the strike also criticized Russia and Iran for  doing nothing to stop it. Journalist Farouk Guida wrote in his column in Al-Ahram:  "Where were Russia's military forces and military bases in Syria[?]... Where were the thousands of Russian troops that are deployed in Damascus as the American missiles hurtled towards it and the British and French planes circled in the Syrian sky[?] And where were the Iranian forces that have been entrenched in the Syrian soil for years on the pretext of defending it? Not a single one of the [Iranian] soldiers that are occupying Syrian land lifted a finger. How did the American planes and missiles invade every part of Syria while it is full of armies that purport to defend it, its people and its president? This military strike was not just a n[American act of] aggression against the Syrian people, but also a resounding slap in the face of two large countries: Russia and Iran. [Their failure to respond] was a betrayal of the Syrian people and regime... The U.S. wanted to cut Russia down to size, and succeeded... What is certain is that this military operation... revealed the [true] military and political caliber of the forces [in Syria, proving] that the U.S. is still the decision maker. Although [the strike] was criminal, it is a victory for the American president over Putin and the Mullahs of Iran..."[15]

Saudi Arabia: The Attack Was An Ineffective Response To A Criminal Act

As stated, after the Western strike Saudi Arabia expressed "full support for the military action carried out by the U.S., the U.K. and France against military targets in Syria." A foreign ministry official said that the strike had come as a response to the Syrian regime's repeated use of chemical weapons, which are prohibited by the international community, against innocent civilians, including women and children, "in addition to the heinous crimes it has been perpetrating for years against our brothers, the Syrian people."[16]

However, articles in the Saudi press criticized the character of the attack. Some of the articles criticized its limited scope and targets, stating that it would not deter Assad from continuing to butcher his people. Others complained that the three countries chose to respond after chemical weapons were used, but turned a blind eye as the Syrian regime massacred its own people with conventional weapons for seven years. Several articles included implied criticism of Egypt, which came out against the attack.

The Attack Did Not Achieve Its Objectives; The West Ignores Assad's Massacres Along As They Are Carried Out With Conventional Weapons

A notable response was by Khaled Al-Suleiman, a columnist for the 'Okaz daily,  who contended that the strike was ineffective because it was not directed at strategic targets like the presidential palace in Damascus. He wrote: "In a previous column I said that any operation that would not convey a clear message to the head of the [Syrian] regime, Bashar Al-Assad, by targeting his presidential palace would be useless.[17] The regime evacuated its airports, it bases and most of the sites that were likely to be attacked. The strikes should have neutralized [the regime's] air capabilities and paralyzed its conventional weapons capabilities, in order to compel it to accept a political solution to end the war in Syria!

"Punishing [Assad] only for using chemical weapons and not for killing his people [in other ways] gives him the false impression that he is allowed to keep murdering and driving out his people, as long as he uses conventional weapons rather than chemical ones. That is a moral and political mistake on the part of Western society, which was outraged only when [the regime] used chemical weapons in Douma. It does not make a  difference to the Syrian [citizen] if he chokes on poison gas or is torn to shreds by a barrel bomb!"[18]


Cartoon in Makka daily: the world prohibits only non-conventional weapons (Makka, Saudi Arabia, April 12, 2018)

A similar claim was raised in a column by 'Abdallah Al-Junaid in the Saudi government daily Makka, in which he wrote: "It must be admitted that there is no international desire to end this conflict. Otherwise, why would the world be preoccupied with the deaths of 60 women and children from chemical weapons but allow the deaths of hundreds [from conventional weapons]  every day, so that more than half a million people have been barbarically killed and 12 million have been driven [from their homes] in the course of [these] seven years? And why was the threat to punish the Assad regime and its allies for the chemical attack in Douma implemented as a little slap on the cheek instead of painfully boxing their ears?...

"From Bill Clinton to [Donald] Trump, all the American leaders have dealt with Putin by either [carrying out] reckless escapades or naively maintaining a truce [with him]... As for Trump's famous tweet after the strike in Douma, 'Get ready Russia, because they [the missiles] will be coming.  You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal' – did it achieve any of the [results] everyone was expecting? Maybe so, but not enough to end the ongoing humanitarian crisis [in Syria]..."[19]

Columnist In Government Daily Slams Trump For Handling The Attack Like A Friendly Soccer Match,

'Abdallah Al-Mazhar, a columnist for the Saudi government daily Makka, ridiculed the way U.S. President Donald Trump had handled the crisis, writing: "We seem to be on the brink of a new kind of war... Now there are wars [carried out] in agreement between the two sides. One side, the aggressor, informs the other, [who is] the object of the attack, about the sites to be targeted, the timing, and the kind of weapon to be used. The other side prepares the sites, removing anything that might cause damage. Then the attack, which takes a few minutes, is carried out, accompanied by a storm of declarations whose utterance requires more effort than the launching of the 'nice and smart' missiles from planes and ships towards the empty [target] sites.

"This way of [handling] conflict... is not customary even in friendly soccer matches, for such a match would not capture the interest or evoke any enthusiasm in the [spectators] or even in the players themselves. But the fact that it is unacceptable in soccer does not mean that it is unacceptable in war between superpowers."

Al-Mazhar repeated the claim that the West allows Bashar Al-Assad to butcher his people as long as it is done using conventional weapons, hinting that this is motivated by a desire to protect the market for such weapons: "The declared goal of the friendly attacks recently carried out by the U.S. against the Assad regime and against Russia, which guarantees [this regime's survival], is to punish [the regime] for the use of chemical weapons against its people and warn it that the use of such weapons is unacceptable. [Moreover, the use of such weapons] is proof of idiocy and folly, because [the regime] can kill its people with other weapons that can be purchased openly without any problem and without outraging global opinion, which is somewhat sensitive when it comes to killing with chemicals.  The principle is: 'you can kill a million people with conventional weapons, and starve and displace them, and that will be tolerated. But kill a single person with chemical weapons, and the entire world will be furious.' That is natural. Every trader in the world wants to keep his customers and preserve the need for his merchandise."

Columnist in Al-Hayat Daily: The Attack Was Not Meant To Protect The Syrian People But To Send A Message To Russia

Political analyst Khalid Al-Dakhil wrote in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat that the attack was not meant to protect the Syrian people at all, but rather to send a message to Russia as part of the struggle between the superpowers: "As expected, the military strike on Syrian army positions was limited in its scope and its political objectives. Its only goal was to attack the Syrian regime's chemical weapons infrastructure. It was not part of the political strategy regarding the situation in Syria, and had no direct connection to the people and victims of Syria or even on the Syrian president, who, according to some, left the presidential palace shortly before the attack and took shelter in Russia's Khmeimim military base...

"After seven years of civil war, Syria is nothing more than an arena of struggle between the great and the small. Every operation there, every move and every attack are [aimed at achieving] goals that have nothing to do with Syria or with the interests of the Syrian people. Even the recent attack was carried out on Syrian soil but its [real] target was Russia and its activities in and out of Syria... U.S. President Donald Trump calls [Assad] an animal, a dictator and a war criminal, as does British Prime Minister Theresa May. But both avoid launching a direct attack on him. It seems that the West, too, regards Assad as a bargaining chip in the negotiations with the Russians...

"Amid this unbelievable reality, the goal of the three countries' attack was not harming the Assad regime's military capabilities. These capabilities have no weight in the power-balance [between the forces] that are currently controlling Syria. [Moreover,] these capabilities repeatedly failed to protect president [Assad] and his regime before the Russians intervened. Nor was the [Western] attack aimed at defending the Syrian people from the regime and its allies. Had that been the goal, or even one of the goals, the three countries would have expressed a clear political position: that the shedding of Syrian blood, whether with chemical weapons or any other kind of weapon, [must] end and that the foreign militias must leave [Syria] as a condition for any political solution to the Syria crisis. Had the good of the Syrian people been one of the goals of this strike, the three countries would have named Assad's departure as another condition for a political solution. Instead, both before and after the strike, they kept mum about the need for a political solution and the conditions for [achieving it], and about Assad's fate.

"The objective of [this] military strike was part of the struggle between the West, especially the U.S., and Russia..."[20]

Implied Criticism Of Egypt's Opposition To The Attack

In some articles, the writers implied criticism of Egypt's opposition to the tripartite attack in Syria. Thus, Sa'id Al-Suraihi, columnist for the official Saudi daily 'Okaz, came out against those "who pretend to cry" about the blow to Syria's sovereignty, while ignoring the damage done by the Syrian regime to its own people. He wondered why they didn't protest in a similar manner when Iran, Russia, and Turkey sent their forces into Syria, saying: "The punitive attack by the U.S., France, and the U.K. against the Syrian regime provoked the anger of those who still cling to the illusions created by the national slogans and claims of national sovereignty. Those who protest against this attack forget that the value of a human life surpasses any nationalism that they are defending and any sovereignty that they celebrate. [They also forget] that a regime that wages a war of obliteration and deliberate expulsion [against its own people] cannot possibly continue to be free and immune to prosecution, and will continue to do whatever it likes with its people and to stick out its tongue at the world and cry, These are my people and I can do whatever I want with them.'

"Those who pretend to cry about nationalism [i.e. Egypt] have disregarded all the results of this nationalism in the country that for decades lied to Arabs for decades with the slogan 'One nation with an eternal message' – and then had no problem transforming both its front and back yards into an arena in which the Persians [i.e. Iranians] and Turks run around and the Russians beat their war drums.

"Those who pretend to cry about what they call a violation of Syrian sovereignty have ignored the fact that all that remains of that sovereignty is 'the sovereignty of the president' and 'the sovereignty of the party,' which cannot defend their land [and prevent] its transformation into a refuge for terrorists from all over the world...

"Those who pretend to cry about nationalist illusions and slogans about sovereignty but did not cry out in protest against the Iranian interference, the Turkish invasion, and the Russian attacks [suddenly] awoke after the punitive attack, and began to issue condemnations and to cry tears that they did not cry at the sight of the millions of dead and wounded and of the uprooted and refugees among the Syrian people. They felt no sorrow when they saw the Persians, the Turks, and the Russians meeting to decide the fate and the future of the country [Syria]..."[21]

'Abdallah Al-Mazhar, a columnist for the Saudi government daily Makka, also castigated elements in the Arab world who attacked the U.S. for its operation in Syria: "The other nice thing... is the excessive rage of some Arabs [i.e. Egypt] at the [act of] aggression carried out by imperialist America on Arab soil. This rage would have been reasonable if the same elements had not regarded it as perfectly acceptable that the Russians, the Persians, the Turks and every [other] nation in the world is allowed [to do as is pleases] on the very same Arab land..."[22]

 

[2] On the complexity of the Saudi position on the Syria crisis, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1391, Sharp Shifts In Saudi Policy On Syria Crisis: From Recognition Of Assad Regime To Willingness To Join Military Action Against Him , April 13, 2018.

[4] Mfa.gov.eg, April 14, 2018.

[5] The reference is to understandings reached at the Astana talks, which turned the areas under rebel control into isolated enclaves.

[6] Mfa.gov.eg, April 14, 2018.

[7] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 15, 2018.

[8] A reference to the claim that the West intends to divide Syria among the various regional powers.

[9] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 15, 2018.

[10] Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 14, 2018.

[11] Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 15, 2018.

[12] Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 16, 2017.

[13] Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 15, 2018.

[14] A reference to the United Arab Republic, a political union of Syria and Egypt that lasted from 1958 until 1961. During this time the two countries had a joint military, with the Syrian armed forces serving as its First Army and the Egyptian armed forces comprising the Second and Third Armies. Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), April 15, 2018.

[15] Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 16, 2017.

[16] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), April 15, 2018.

[18] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), April 15, 2018.

[19] Makka (Saudi Arabia), April 15, 2018.

[20] Al-Hayat (London), April 15, 2018.

[21] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), April 17, 2018.

[22] Makka (Saudi Arabia), April 15, 2018.