Last chance for Syria?

Last week during a trip to London I was invited to dinner with a group of people predominantly from the Middle East. Among those present were Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese, Saudis and Jordanians.
They all came from different walks of life, with the group including a journalist, a businesswoman, a news anchor, a civil society activist, a former diplomat and a priest. It was interesting to hear their views: how they see the situation in Syria; the role of the international community and where the country is headed. Even in light of Saturday’s meeting in Geneva, which seemed to represent a last-ditch attempt to get the Russians on board, they all shared one view. Namely that the situation in the country has deteriorated to such as extent that it may now be impossible to stop a full-blown civil war.

Over a year after the atrocities began, the international community is in hot water. Their failure to stand united and to develop a proper strategy has allowed Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to exploit their differences with nobody seemingly really having a clue as to how to get rid of the Assad family. Diplomacy has so far failed, and the military option is off the table. The situation continues to go downhill, with a massive security vacuum and regional tensions growing, the most recent evidence of this being the shooting down of a Turkish plane by Syria. Syria’s key geostrategic position — having Turkey, Iraq, Israel and Lebanon in its neighborhood and Iran only a stone’s throw away — means whatever happens has a significant impact on the entire region. These days the picture does not look too rosy.

At the “Action Group” meeting of world powers over the weekend at the UN’s European headquarters in Geneva, leaders agreed to a plan that would in theory create an interim unity government that would include members of the present government, the opposition and other groups. This interim unity government would draft a new constitution and initiate a democratic process for choosing a new leadership for the country. Kofi Annan is now supposed to go to Damascus and tell Assad that the world powers are calling for a new governing body and that he should listen. There is no point in saying that “Moscow and Beijing don’t support it” this time because both countries are on board. This was clearly one of the main points of the Geneva meeting: to get Russia on board at almost any cost.

Yet despite the positive spin that was put on this agreement, in reality the chances that this new plan will succeed seem slim. This was reflected in the statements that came out from the US and Russia, President Assad’s strongest ally, which demonstrate that Moscow and Washington are clearly still not singing from exactly the same hymn sheet. While US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared the decision of Russia and China to endorse the plan a significant step, the Russians soon poured what seems like cold water on it by making a statement which underlined the fact that they had removed the phrase from the text that insisted on Assad stepping down from power. This led to the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group that is backed by the West, issuing a statement labeling the meeting a “mockery” and vowing to continue fighting. For things to progress, guns need to be laid down and all parties need to work together. But unless the Syrian National Council can be convinced that Assad is really heading towards the exit, I doubt they will be persuaded.

Assad will not be going anywhere unless he is forced to by his allies — this means Russia and Iran. Iran was of course excluded from the meeting, which means Tehran will continue with its meddling. There also seems to be quite a lot of wishful thinking regarding the position of Moscow. It would seem that Moscow may be sick of being blamed for the ongoing situation in Syria, so has been willing to tweak its policy. However, this does not necessarily mean it is going to be dragging Assad from his palace anytime soon.

Until now Russia has continued to put its own interests vis-à-vis Syria before everything else. However, later this month, Russia’s leadership is set to meet with two key Syrian opposition leaders, Michel Kilowill and Abdulbaset Sieda, together with Annan. To many people this has been interpreted as Moscow being ready to throw its weight behind the new plan and begin to seriously think about a post-Assad Syria. Clearly Russia wants to be viewed as playing a more positive role in the search for a solution rather than being seen as being part of the problem. Russia is happy with this new “Action Group.” It has offered the country a more prominent role in the process, it has taken their views on board and it has taken the limelight away from Turkey and the “Friends of Syria” group, which has been pushed by Ankara yet is detested by Moscow. However, about whether all this means that Moscow is preparing to pressure Assad out of office, I am still not convinced.

Source: Sunday’s Zaman

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