Not all the outcomes of Friday’s “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunis will appear in newspaper headlines, announcements and statements made by its high-ranking participants, which will all carry their fair share of important political messages directed at Damascus, Tehran, Moscow and Beijing. What will not be announced is a strategy of coordination and distribution of roles to achieve what the participants agree on, namely: Stripping Bashar Al-Assad’s regime of legitimacy at the bilateral level, rejecting it at the regional level, and prosecuting it at the international level – as summed up by a well-informed source. Such goals require an implementation strategy, not just a political one, which means that arming the opposition will be at the forefront of the objects of role distribution, as will the means to isolate the regime in Damascus through two main gateways: Turkey and Iraq. Another issue that will be the object of in-depth discussion is the nature of the future relationship of the countries of the “Friends of Syria” gathering with Russia and China – both bilaterally and at the level of the Security Council, where they have veto power. And then there is Iran, which will be present at the gathering in Tunis despite its absence there, as will Israel. Indeed, on the one hand, any military engagement between the two countries will change all plans and bring everyone back to the strategy-drafting table. And on the other hand, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a main element not just because of its relationship with the regime in Syria, but also because of its important weight and dimension in Russia’s considerations, as in the vision of all players in the new regional order that is being shaped – including at the gathering in Tunis today.
In appearance, there are signs of confusion in the policies of many of the countries in the “Friends of Syria” gathering, including the United States. But in reality, there are decisions that have been taken before heading to Tunis, decisions that have been prepared in several countries, and in which Turkey has a vital and central part to play.
If Russia and China’s double veto at the Security Council was interpreted by the Syrian regime’s military machine as a green light for it to crush the inhabitants of Syrian cities and villages, then perhaps what the highest-ranking US military official said has been interpreted by the Syrian military machine as signifying that there is no way to confront it militarily at the international level, no matter what it does.
To be sure, the US Army’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, has stated that “Intervening in Syria would be very difficult… And I think that the current path of trying to gain some kind of international consensus [against Syria] is the proper path, rather than to take a decision to do anything unilaterally”. Damascus’s interpretation of this is that the United States has eliminated the military option under any circumstances. And indeed, the signs coming out of the general popular mood in the US, as well as the features that have characterized President Barack Obama’s policy, indicate that the United States will not intervene militarily in Syria. But for General Dempsey to willingly take the step of saying what he did… Those words have a different dimension in the Syrian leadership’s mind – which has thus been encouraged to intensify its military crackdown, trusting that no one will move militarily to stop it.
In an equally unfortunate statement, General Dempsey said that it was “premature to take a decision to arm the opposition movement in Syria”, adding that “I would challenge anyone to identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point”, and also that “there’s indications that Al-Qaeda is involved and that they’re interested in supporting the opposition. I mean there are a number of players, all of whom are trying to reinforce their particular side of this issue”.
Regardless of the soundness of the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s point of view, the mere fact of his declaring such stances with regard to the opposition would justify the latter saying “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” Even the confused US Administration found itself embarrassed as a result of Dempsey’s statements, and thus put military action and arming the opposition back on the table.
Meanwhile, since the dual veto, over a thousand people have been killed, cities have been destroyed by air strikes and one of the most prominent international journalists, Marie Colvin, has fallen victim to one such strike. Marie Colvin had in her last television appearance explained on the phone that she had witnessed the destruction, as well as the death of a child who could not be saved. She wrote in her last blog post about how depressed she was feeling – despite being seasoned at covering wars and the tragedies experienced by people in them – and called on the world to stop ignoring the humanitarian disaster in Homs and in other Syrian cities. God rest the soul of this rare gem of journalistic conscience, who always appeared where humanitarian values called her, so that she may tell the world what she saw with her one eye – having lost the other on a journalistic mission in Sri Lanka years ago. Our friend Marie Colvin knew perfectly well that going to Syria might cost her even her life, and yet she went there because the tragedy of the Syrian people called upon her, so that she may tell its story with her own blood.
Lately, expressions such as “humanitarian corridors”, “humanitarian envoy” or “humanitarian truce” are finding their way to the language of politicians and diplomats, who are always skilled at speaking the language of interests. Yet bad intentions accompany this humanitarian awakening for some. Thus, the idea of sending a “humanitarian envoy”, which was put forward by Russia, falls under procrastination and delay at the expense of people’s lives. Had the leaders of the Syrian regime wanted a humanitarian envoy, they would have welcomed Valerie Amos, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.
This does not mean that the idea of “humanitarian corridors”, of which France tried to convince Russia, is one that is devoid of politics. For such corridors would provide a foothold for the United Nations to enter Syrian soil –something that is unacceptable to Russia.
The “Friends of Syria” gathering has invited Russia and China to join it, perhaps realizing in advance that Russia would not attend and that China would follow its lead. There is a very big gap between the stance taken by Russia and China and the one taken by the Arabs, the United States and Europe.
Russia, through its Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who had led when he was Ambassador to the United Nations a campaign against granting the UN the power to intervene militarily in Iraq, is today at the forefront of the opposition to regime change in Syria. Russia agreed two days ago to a Security Council resolution granting the power to use “all means necessary” – including military means – in Somalia, knowing perfectly well that this would unleash military action against the “Al-Shabab” movement there. At the same time, Lavrov explained his refusal to take part in the “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunis by saying that he rejects an international coalition to support one side against the other in an internal conflict.
Perhaps the most important reason is due to Putin’s insistence on not allowing the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to develop their alliance with the United States and Europe in order to shape a new regional order that would exclude Russia. Putin has decided that Russia’s interests require undermining the alliance between the Gulf and the West. This is why he has resolved to cling to the regime in Damascus and to inform whom it may concern that he is forging a major axis that comprises Russia, China, Iran and Syria, to confront the Gulf-Western alliance’s plans for shaping the new regional order.
For this reason, some respond to calls to find out what could be the elements of the deal sought after by the Russians– with regional players, particularly in the Gulf, and with Washington and European capitals – by saying: there is no way for middle-of-the-road solutions. In other words, Gulf countries cannot comply with what Russia wants of them, neither in terms of doing away with their alliance, nor in terms of preserving Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, which represents for the Gulf countries the key element for containing Iran’s ambitions of regional hegemony.
The words of Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz to Russian President Medvedev about “dialogue” having exhausted its usefulness are of the utmost importance, because they mean that a qualitative shift has taken place in the way Saudi Arabia is dealing with the Syrian predicament – and with Russia. What those words mean is that it is out of the question for the countries of the Gulf to “entice” Russia into changing its stance, and that they on the other hand have taken into account the possibility of confronting it. The removal of the Syrian regime has become an irreversible decision, and Russia must decide what it considers to be in its interest – according to the thinking of the Gulf Arabs, who consider the Russians to be losing in this conflict because they are wagering on a regime that is in the process of vanishing.
Making the Russians embarrassed of their stances is a necessary tactic, but it does not shape a strategy. That is why the matter is not devoid of danger, especially when it comes to China having clearly made the strategic decision to preserve the Chinese-Russian alliance. There may be some disagreement in issuing stances, but China is siding with Russia, and even its interests will not lead China to split away from Russia.
Thus, what will come out of the “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunis will be decisive in terms of implementing the resolve to remove the regime in Damascus through pressure on the ground, not just through building international momentum, making the Tunis conference the gateway to the Security Council. Within such a framework, Turkey and Iraq have an essential part to play.
Turkey is a member of the “Friends of Syria” alliance, and it represents a fundamental basis for launching the process of supporting the armed opposition on behalf of the countries of the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) and of the GCC. It is the corridor to corridors.
Iraq seems much more reticent, but there is determination and a gathering of the capabilities of the Gulf dedicated to convincing Iraq to stop providing assistance and expressing sympathy with the regime in Damascus. And it is within such a framework that a move like returning the Saudi Ambassador to Baghdad can be understood, as well as initiating political discourse on the part of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf that is less critical of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. Such measures might not be sufficient to change the stances of the new Iraq, which had in turn been the subject of a gathering of “friends” to topple its former President Saddam Hussein and set up its current government.
In conclusion, the Gulf-Western alliance has taken the decision to confront Russia on the issue of Syria, and it considers that the regime will be gone by the end of the year. Indeed, the strategy to implement this has been set in motion.
The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in Dar Al Hayat on Feb. 24, 2012.