Arabic media review

Putin the moves on Assad

Iran’s most liberal presidential candidate tells Saudi Arabia he wants its friendship

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting in the Kremlin earlier this month (photo credit: AP/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting in the Kremlin earlier this month (photo credit: AP/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)

As forces loyal to Bashar Assad in Syria continue to make gains across the country Thursday, Arab media focuses on the religious element of the conflict and warn against “Shiite” and “Iranian” advances interchangeably.

“Paris warns against Iran ‘putting its hand’ on Syria,” reads the headline of London-based daily Al-Hayat, reporting on an opposition counteroffensive in Aleppo, as government forces advance cautiously on the central Syrian city of Homs.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius tells the France 2 TV station that the balance of power between government and opposition must be restored on the ground — following significant advances by the Assad army — before an international political summit can be held in Geneva on the future of Syria, Al-Hayat reports.

London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi leads its front page news with a report that 60 Syrian “Shiites” were killed in clashes with Islamist fighters in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour. The daily claims that the event threatens to taint the Syrian conflict “in more sectarian colors.”

Assad’s insistence on using the momentum of the Quseir victory to capture Aleppo and Homs has driven Western powers to intensify their communication in discussing arming the rebels, the daily reports.

Quoting opposition sources, Qatari news station Al-Jazeera reports that government forces backed by Hezbollah are engaged in battle with the opposition in the Barzah district of Damascus following a Hezbollah attempt to storm the district.

Syria continues to overwhelmingly dominate the editorial pages of Arab newspapers on Thursday, with special focus on a rare critique by Russian President Vladimir Putin of Assad. On Wednesday, Putin said that Assad could have undertaken more significant reforms in order to avoid the current situation.

According to A-Sharq Al-Awsat columnist Tareq Homayed, Putin is merely “using a new trick on the international community,” which is now racing against the clock to prevent Assad from retaking Syria.

“Putin’s critique of Assad is nothing but a Russian attempt to signal to the West that Moscow is still willing to negotiate on Assad in order to put the brakes on the speeding car of international mobilization to arm the Syrians,” writes Homayed.

“It must be understood that Putin is a pragmatic man who will not hesitate to forgo Assad if the Russians receive the right price for the dictator’s head, with an assurance that the regime will not collapse of course.”

But the lead editorial in Al-Quds Al-Arabi Thursday views Putin’s remarks as sincere.

“Putin… has hit the nail on the head. His regret is sincere. The Syrian regime’s management of the crisis when it began was unsuccessful and marred by an inability to assess the situation on the ground and gauge the level of public anger more specifically,” reads the editorial.

“No one can accuse the Russian president… of hostility toward the Syrian regime and its president. No one can deny or diminish the importance of aid provided by Putin’s Russia to this regime.”

Al-Hayat columnist Zoheir Quseibati views Putin’s comments as a moral affront on the part of the Russians following decades of military cooperation with the Assad regime.

“This ‘soft’ reprimand by President Vladimir Putin was strange, effectively used to  justify the Kremlin’s position towards the atrocities in Syria. This comes following the death of around 100,000 Syrians slaughtered and killed by bombs and missiles. The tragedy is that Putin is trying to delude himself and deceive the Syrians, the Arabs and the West with a magic solution for the worst humanitarian tragedy in the modern age. He reassures the victims that they have the right to decide the regime’s destiny!”  

Liberal Iranian candidate reaches out to Saudi Arabia

That conservative Sunni Saudi Arabia is an avowed enemy of conservative Shiite Iran is no secret. But on Thursday, Saudi-owned daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat runs a front page interview with Iran’s relatively liberal presidential candidate, Hassan Rouhani.

Rouhani tells the daily that he insists on turning the “rivalry” between Iran and Saudi Arabia into “cooperation” and “mutual respect.” In his opinion, Iran and Saudi Arabia can cooperate in providing security to the Gulf.

Rouhani admits that responsibility for foreign policy is constitutionally held by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but said that he expected to receive full support from Khamenei.

The presidential candidate said he intended to exert his best efforts to release political prisoners in Iran, including presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who have been placed under house arrest since the last presidential elections of 2009.

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