The search for an “exit strategy” has begun for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and perhaps also for the major powers active in the Syrian issue, with most of them having backed themselves into a corner – including Russia as well as the United States.
Yet this does not herald a quick solution to the humanitarian tragedy in Syria, nor an immediate agreement that would rescue the Syrian Revolution from civil war and division. The majority at the international level speaks of months, not weeks, unless developments on the ground force the players to stop moving slowly, each for their own reasons. The American presidential elections have become the international excuse for all those who want to evade the challenges of the Syrian crisis, under the pretext that the it is the stances taken by the United States that dictate the pace for action.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned the world against burying one’s head in the sand, and said in his address to the General Assembly this week that the issue of Syria had become a threat to peace and security in the region as well as in the world. The Emir of Qatar called for Arab intervention similar to that of the Arab Deterrent Force in Lebanon.
But both their speeches had the effect of beating on drums, instead of being met with the seriousness they deserved. Even President Barack Obama’s words, calling for an end to the rule of the “dictator in Damascus”, were that of someone who had taken a backseat relative to another, unknown leader.
Lakhdar Brahimi, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General and of Secretary-General of the Arab League Nabil El-Araby, has in turn become a pretext to justify international resolve not yet maturing with regard to taking action on the Syrian issue. Yet what seems like a collective movement to flee forward does not reflect the complete picture of what is taking place behind the scenes.
Indeed, there really is overwhelming fear of pretending that there is still a margin of time before a full-blown explosion or complete collapse. This is why work has begun on an exit strategy that remains as of yet obscure and slow-paced in nature.
One of those who met with Russian President Vladimir Putin conveyed his saying that he was not worried about an intervention in Syria that would in any way resemble that of the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) in Libya, for practical and material reasons. Those who were informed of such talk between Putin and his visitors said that the Russian President had talked about Libyan resources to cover the cost of NATO’s military operations, while in Syria, there isn’t enough “pay dirt” to cover the expenses for direct or indirect military operations by NATO - through Turkey or others, by imposing a no-fly zone or otherwise.
They said that Putin had wagered on the “stinginess” of the Arab countries that would bear the burden of financing such an expensive war. He put his mind at ease and reassured himself to the idea of a prolonged conflict in Syria – as long as the United States does not have the boldness or the Arabs the unified will, to pay the bill for a NATO intervention.
Other elements of the Russian wager on the benefits of prolonging the conflict include Moscow’s assessment that, despite the appearance of cohesion between the stances of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), there are differences and competition that prevent repeating what happened in Libya.
In other words, there is no willingness for a comprehensive and rigorous GCC initiative that would bring the Arab League to the Security Council with a stance demanding resolve – or a determined initiative to turn to NATO and show serious willingness to firmly take the initiative in terms of measures similar to the Kosovo model, i.e. military intervention without referring to the Security Council, on the basis of the latter’s failure.
Some Westerners well informed on the Syrian issue are of a radically different opinion on Russia’s stance. In their view, the main reason behind Russia’s obstinacy is the inability of the Kremlin’s leadership to truly influence the thinking of the leadership in Damascus. And because it is powerless, it prefers to appear conceited and arrogant rather than seem like a weak country powerless to exert influence.
They say that all of the information provided by intelligence services indicates that Assad will not retreat whatever the cost and regardless of who might advise him that his country’s best interest now requires him to leave. One who heard from those who sat with Putin conveyed his saying what amounts to the notion that the Assad family would return Syria to its people as they had received it forty years ago. In other words, the Syrian President is perfectly willing to destroy everything that was achieved throughout the rule of the Assad family in Syria.
Others say that the Syrian President and the leaders of his regime are entirely convinced that this is a mere passing phase, and are confident that the international community will return to seek their help and will rehabilitate them, as it did in the past after the Hama massacre thirty years ago, as well as after the isolation imposed by the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, nearly a decade ago.
They are wagering on the weak resolve of others, most prominently the Americans. They are also feeding the impression that the more dangerous tyrant would be the alternative – whether it is Islamist rule, an invasion of Jihadists, the fragmentation of Syria, its “Afghanization”, its exporting its sectarian and confessional conflict to its neighbors, or making use of chemical weapons to impose a new reality.
Faced with such factors, what could an “exit strategy” be like, if it really is to be an initiative by an Arab country or by Lakhdar Brahimi? Such a strategy might be useful and effective if the Syrian President was willing to step down at the end of the day, not at the beginning.
There may be some creative ideas for convincing Russia that this is the means to bring itself out of the predicament it has gotten itself into. It may also be the means to gather together the Syrian opposition, as much as possible, so that it may be one of the instruments of the exit strategy – and that would require a mixture of both a carrot and stick approach.
Any one of these scenarios would require incentives, as well as making use of bilateral relations with all players in Syria and outside of it. This means that there is no escaping effective influence and effective means of making an impact among the countries concerned on the one hand, and among some of the active countries, Syrian opposition parties and the regime in Damascus on the other.
This is where the role played by the United States becomes prominent, just as do those played by the countries of the GCC with Russia, China and Iran respectively. Indeed, all this talk of the Syrian regime and opposition, under the pretext that it is all up to the Syrians themselves, is nearly nonsense.
As a matter of fact, if the United States were indeed serious, it could speak the language of strategy with Russia and China. And if the GCC countries really were serious, they could talk to Russia and China in the language of vital interests. This has not yet happened, despite all claims and diplomatic maneuvers.
The United States may start thinking differently if the number of extremist militant groups fighting in Syria alongside the opposition increases, and if these groups start taking positions in areas not under the control of Syrian authorities in the Golan near Israel.
There are those who say that Israel has begun to fear the presence of Jihadists near its border with Syria, after it had feared the presence of Islamists hostile to it at its border with Egypt. They also say that this military equation has begun to change the pace of Israel’s hesitancy, wavering between supporting the regime in Damascus and admitting to its inevitable demise. According to them, Israeli decision-making has begun to head towards rushing to settle matters in Syria before the prolonged conflict leads to the growth of Jihadist elements, and to such groups occupying positions that would pose a threat to it.
Perhaps Russia too has begun to realize that it has made a grave mistake by prolonging the conflict, one that could lead to the opposite of what it had sought, in terms of containing the rise of Islamists to power. Indeed, the “Afghanization” of Syria in a long-drawn war of attrition could lead to incentivizing Islamists inside Russia and in the Muslim republics that surround it.
This is why it is in need of an “exit strategy”. Perhaps it will find in Brahimi an opportunity for it to bring itself out of the predicament it has gotten itself into, and perhaps also to anticipate the uprising in the five Muslim republics neighboring it or on its home soil.
Turkey too may be in need of an exit strategy from hesitating, stumbling and backing down. It is at times at the forefront of the fateful battle – and at others at the rear. Turkey represents the weak link.
As for Iran, it is decisively and clearly active in the Syrian issue. To be sure, Iran boasts of the presence of the Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran) deep inside Syria, violates Security Council resolutions, and breaches Iraqi airspace and soil in order to extend military aid to the regime in Damascus. And it is confident that it is above being held to account.
Iraq is burying its head in the sand, pretending to be unable to control its territory and its borders, and challenging the United States to take on the task if it so wishes, wagering on the likelihood that it will not.
Egypt is playing the game of the “quartet,” which has become a “trio” after the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stopped attending meetings of the major regional powers – Egypt, Turkey, the KSA and Iran – to resolve the Syrian crisis. Neither of them sees any need for an exit strategy, as they are working on the margins of the battle, not at its core.
Forty days, say some, until the end of the American elections. January, say others, when the same US Administration inaugurates its second term. Spring, say others still, after it has become clear to them that autumn will end with thousands of victims in Syria and the regime still clinging to power.
What everyone agrees on is that there is no returning to how things were before the revolution in Syria. But at what cost will change take place? To this there is no immediate answer, because the exit strategy is still in the process of being conceived.
(Raghida Dergham is a writer for al-Hayat, where this article was first published Sept. 27, 2012)