The regime change obsession of the West and the coalition of rebels it is propping up has obstructed the search for a peaceful solution in Syria
Now that there is a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the international community will focus again on Syria; it cannot pay attention to two crises at the same time, just as a state, however mighty, cannot wage successful wars on two fronts simultaneously.
The externally induced National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces is almost guaranteed to lead to two outcomes: the conflict will suck in Syria’s neighbours, making the region even more volatile. For once, it is the regional powers that are calling the shots. The extra-regional powers have allowed themselves to become allies of the regional players, unlike the more familiar scenario of regional states being used as allies of the West. Secondly, the civil war in Syria will intensify and extend well into the future with the Syrian people condemned to suffer and die in large numbers in the months ahead.
Role of international community
Is this what the ‘international community’ really desires? There is no dearth of expression of concern, even of sadness, at the loss of lives in Syria. But if this concern for human lives was genuine, should there not have been a serious effort towards a political solution? No one can honestly say that the Assad regime never gave the slightest hint that it was ready to explore the possibility of reaching a peaceful denouement. On the other hand, the rebels and those backing them made it clear ab initio, that there was no question of even ‘talks about talks’ unless Bashar al-Assad was first eliminated, politically at least.
The obsession with regime change has come in the way of a search for political dialogue. Negotiations have to include those whom one regards as one’s enemies. Not inviting Iran to the Geneva conclave was clearly wrong, given the fact that Iran was a most interested as well as influential player in the great game. If the demand is only for Mr. Assad to leave, and not regime change, a senior figure in the Assad regime, Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil, had said publicly in Moscow on August 12, 2012, that everything could be discussed in negotiations around a table, including the resignation of President Assad, but Mr. Assad’s departure could not be a precondition for talks. This was a reasonable offer. Why was it not followed up? Why was no effort made to ascertain its seriousness?
If wholesale regime change is what is sought, there is no incentive for any side — there are certainly more than two sides in this tragic conflict — to stop the fight. Mr. Assad is not going to surrender, exposing himself, his family, his community and the various minorities to a certain bloody backlash. The regime has committed atrocities, no doubt, but the rebels are not angels as has now been conclusively established. The rebels, for their part, have a significant number of extremist elements in their ranks, including Salafists, Muslim Brotherhood, as well as al- Qaeda, all of whom have a radical agenda and will not settle for anything less than a complete overthrow of the Ba’ath regime. The rebels have a vested interest in continuing the civil war; if peace talks succeed, they will lose all relevance particularly because the Syrian people, including the Sunnis, are unlikely to vote for the Brotherhood and its allies. Those supporting the rebels do not seem to have given sufficient attention to what might follow the regime’s fall; the token assurances they have received from some of the rebel groups on this score cannot be taken at face value.
In any case, Mr. Assad is not going to give up without a stiff fight. He has the means to carry on, given the fact that the bulk of his large army is still with him. The number of deserters and defectors is not alarming from his perspective, despite huge monetary incentives offered by some states. His air force has enough firepower to inflict significant damage. Importantly, he has the support of regional powers that will go to almost any length to ensure his and his regime’s survival and of influential external powers that will ensure that the United Nations Security Council will not lend legitimacy to a no-fly zone or any form of international military action.
The Syrian national council, based in Turkey, would have been reluctant to merge with the National Coalition, but it had very little choice in the matter once Secretary Clinton criticised it as not being representative enough of the Syrian opposition. Now that the National Coalition, supposedly more representative of the Syrian people, has been formed, it will expect, and will surely receive, increased financial, intelligence and military assistance from its patrons making the civil war even bloodier. It will also expect to obtain diplomatic recognition in the near future as the government in exile, which also will be forthcoming from some western countries and most of the regional powers, with the certain exception of Iran and, most likely, Iraq. The sectarian divide will be complete. No one should be surprised as and when the National Coalition demands Syria’s seat in the United Nations as the ‘legitimate’ representative of the Syrian people. It would be interesting to follow how that drama will unfold.
The regional dimensions of the Syrian war are becoming apparent by the day. Lebanon has already suffered shocks, which could threaten to drive it into a civil war situation of its own. Jordan is fragile, with demonstrators calling openly for a change of regime there. Turkey which has played a very proactive role in the Syrian situation is not immune from problems of its own, particularly with its Kurdish minority, which, with Syria’s support will do its best to cause instability in the country which, in turn, would lead to more direct confrontation between the two countries. If Patriot missiles are deployed along the Syrian border and NATO gets involved, Russian and Chinese attitudes will harden significantly.
And there is always the decades old Arab-Israeli dispute. Already Syria and Israel have exchanged fire. It is not clear who on the Syrian side was responsible; it is possible that rebels and the regime could in fact implicitly agree on dragging Israel into their conflict for different reasons. On the Palestinian front, Hamas has succeeded in bringing the Palestinian issue to the fore. Hamas is in a win-win situation. It has compelled the Arab states in North Africa, which is where the Arab Spring has occurred, to come out strongly in its support, unlike in previous times. The Arab League will have to express solidarity with Hamas even if Hamas will remain more beholden to Iran than to the Arabs. President Abbas’s position has weakened after the recent events in Gaza and he will come under increased pressure from his own Fatah faction to adopt a tougher, almost belligerent, posture to retain Fatah’s support base in the West Bank. Hezbollah, which has thousands of upgraded missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, is waiting in the wings and might be tempted to join the fray at some point in time.
The Middle East has rarely been so volatile, complex, conflicted and conflict-connected.
(Chinmaya R. Gharekhan served as India’s special envoy to the Middle East and is a former U.N. Under Secretary General.)