A face-saving exit plan might be the only way to remove Assad, and prevent further polarisation of the world’s superpowers
Two weeks ago I met the Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu and we talked about the efficacy of the high-powered Friends of Syria gatherings – the latest of which took place in Tunis last weekend – in finding a solution to the present crisis, compared with that of the Friends of Libya. Davutoglu pointed out that the Friends of Libya had been established after the Nato-led military intervention against Gaddafi. Was Davutoglu implying that there would be a similar intervention in Syria? He declined to answer.
The truth is that there is no consensus because nobody knows what to do about Syria – particularly given the outcome of Nato’s intervention in Libya. The options now are much the same as they were then; the difference is that these days we are more “clear-eyed” about the possible consequences, as Hillary Clinton put it following the Tunis meeting. The accumulated risks associated with each option for intervention – military, political, diplomatic – become more evident as time goes by, and lessen the momentum to act.
Should the international community arm the opposition, as Qatar and Saudi Arabia propose? The problem here is that there is no single, identifiable, unified opposition to negotiate with, let alone arm. The rush to adopt the Libyan Transitional Council as the legitimate opposition to Gaddafi has not resulted in a stable post-revolutionary government, and the Syrian National Council is already split on key issues.
There are several militias apart from the Free Syrian Army: should one or all be armed? Post‑Gaddafi Libya is in disarray with rival heavily-armed militias vying for power. In addition, only a recently emerged splinter group from the Syrian National Council supports arming the resistance – the remainder would not endorse such a move.
Arming the opposition increases the risk of sectarian conflict leading to all-out civil war. Syria is a demographic tinderbox comprising, among others, Kurds, Druze, Christians, Alawites and Arab Sunnis. However, a new leadership drawn from the Sunni majority and antipathetic to Iran would be more useful to the Gulf states and the west than the current (Shia) Alawite regime with its friends in Tehran, Baghdad and Hezbollah.
While I do not doubt that Qatar is acting out of abhorrence for the daily massacres committed by the Assad regime, the emirate has not forgotten Syria’s refusal – under instructions from Moscow – to allow it to build a gas pipeline through its territory to supply Europe.
The failure of diplomacy has pushed the Syrian crisis to tipping point. It was only seven years ago that Assad withdrew all Syrian troops from Lebanon in response to international pressure and America's military intervention in Iraq. In the intervening period Russia and China have emerged as weighty players on the world stage, while Iran has consolidated its position as regional hegemon. These changes have not been factored into the diplomatic process – the Arab League made a great mistake, for example when it failed to engage with Russia and China prior to seeking a UN resolution condemning the Assad regime. When Russia and China then used their veto a precious temporary window of opportunity was closed.
Russia, China and Iran all oppose a solution that seeks the removal of Assad. The international community needs to seek consensus rather than solidify a new cold war paradigm based on self-interest – surely Clinton had her tongue firmly in her cheek when she accused the Russians and Chinese of supporting Assad because “he buys their arms, he sells them oil”.
The current deadlock in Syria may yet be broken by the political process. The recent “referendum”, conducted in a hail of bullets and the absence of international monitors, was clearly ridiculous, but the Syrian people have demonstrated a genuine appetite for reform. The international community, via the UN, could set a deadline for the implementation of real constitutional change, backed up by diplomacy with the threat of military intervention as a last resort.
The idea that Assad’s crimes against humanity might go unpunished is repugnant, but a face-saving exit plan, agreeable to all members of the international community – including Russia, China and Iran – might be the only way to remove Assad and set the country on the road to reform and democracy. The daily atrocities in Homs – like the terrifying attacks Gaddafi threatened in Benghazi – have, perfectly understandably, led to increased calls for military intervention.
But Syria is not Libya: there is still support for Assad inside the country, and any military intervention – from a no-fly zone to peacekeeping forces in humanitarian corridors – would be taken as a declaration of war with the potential for rapid regional escalation pitting the Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia, against the mighty Shia bloc headed by Iran.
Russia and China have already aligned themselves with Syria and Iran, while the west champions oil-rich Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Such a polarisation might easily lead to proxy wars between superpowers and open the door for the real war – with Iran.
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from Abdel Bari Atwan