Lakhdar Brahimi has been patient for long and has had his share of criticism for the delay in launching the long-awaited initiative. He has been trying to convince relevant parties of what he had explicitly declared and which triggered objections by the regime following non-stop campaigns against him by several members of the opposition. It is important that he does not become equally patient with the “support” he is getting from Washington and Moscow, about which U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Bogdanov talked again two days ago in Geneva, for if this “support” is not employed to implement Brahimi’s plan to put an end to violence and start a transitional stage, his entire mission will be rendered futile and will become a pretext for international failure to reach a settlement. Is this what he wants or is he going to submit his resignation when he goes to the Security Council? Unless of course a miracle happens and a resolution that is binding to both sides of the conflict is reached.
Brahimi, the Arab and international envoy, no longer needs to explain what Americans, Russians, and all relevant players already know: that for conflicting parties to sit at the negotiations table is next to impossible. Not one single party in the opposition inside or outside Syria would dare take such a step with the regime or accept the president and his aides to be part of the transitional stage. Plus, the regime does not recognize the opposition to start with and keeps hurling all sorts of accusations at its members. But Brahimi who supports the creation of a government with full powers is not convinced that military settlement is the solution if armed groups are achieving progress on the ground. He is not the only one who realizes that Bashar al-Assad’s regime is part, or rather the main reason, of the crisis, therefore cannot be part of the solution.
International players have been waiting for political initiatives and Arab and U.N. envoys to cover up their inability to stop the killing that has been ongoing for 22 months or because they are reluctant to take part in a conflict they are well aware other regional powers are involved in and whose result will create a new balance of power not only in Syria, but in the entire region. They are worried about jeopardizing the already fragile stability in neighboring countries from Turkey to Jordan and from Lebanon to Iraq in addition to the impact of Gulf countries and Israel’s northern borders. They are also concerned about the fate of chemical weapons, let alone the uranium stockpile if Western reports are true. Add to that the possibility of Syria falling into the hands of extremist Islamist groups and what this entails as far as religious minorities in the country are concerned. This last issue is, in fact, the biggest concern for the United States, Russia, and several European and Arab countries.
Delay would benefit extremists
However, any delay in reaching a resolution that would stop the conflict is bound to tip the balance in favor of al-Nusra Front and a lot of other extremist groups whose power could be seen in the pictures and reports of the Taftanaz air base battle despite attempts at downplaying their influence. This is not new. Right after of the American invasion of Iraq, former U.S. Secretary of State Collin Powell met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and presented to him a set of known demands. At the time, Syria was worried that American troops might reach its borders. The Syrian president did not reject those demands. In fact, he made a point of closing what Damascus labeled the “media offices” of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. In this visit, Powell asked Assad why his government facilitated the crossing of Islamist militants from northern Syria into Iraq to fight American forces, to which Assad replied that these groups constitute a major threat to his security forces and he is not required to stop them from going to the “eastern sister country.” The American forces, he added, should be in charge of fighting and eliminating them.
There is no need to talk about the role of Syrian forces in facilitating the transfer of Islamist militants from the Maghreb, the Arabian Peninsula, and the entire region to Iraq in order to fight Americans and ignite a sectarian conflict. Even Nuri al-Maliki complained about Damascus in the Security Council and asked for the establishment of a special tribunal for the crimes committed by Syrian-backed militias. Today, American ambassador Robert Ford, in charge of following up on the Syrian crisis, is seeing the Syrian north turn into a stronghold for these extremist groups. He does not need to learn how they operate, for he has previous experience with them in the conflict in Algeria, where he was ambassador as well as in the war in Iraq, where he played a major role in combating al-Qaeda.
That is why Americans are reluctant to intervene in Syria. In fact, they do not want to. They assigned the matter to Britain and to the international-Arab envoy. Even the British Foreign Ministry, which is involved in daily negotiations with its American counterpart, is not willing to take part in any adventure no matter how enthusiastic British Prime Minister David Cameron and his foreign minister William Hague might sound. No one in Washington or any European capital would dare make the decision to intervene and which would be very costly on the military and the financial levels, especially that they are trying to salvage the remains of their troops in Afghanistan and other places. They are not even capable of rescuing other European countries which are going through severe economic crises that are affecting the entire continent.
In the absence of any action to stop the conflict in Syria, neither regional and international players nor the warring factions expect the issue to be resolved in terms of victory and defeat. Both the United States and Russia ask similar questions about the “day after” the fall of Assad and both do not find an answer other than throwing the ball in the court of the opposition, which would seem required to start another conflict with al-Nusra Front and other militant groups that are taking part in the war against the regime. Signs of this conflict have already started between al-Nusra and groups affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood. Does it make sense that superpowers are not aware that abstaining from intervention would further complicate the situation in Syria and give more power to those groups? Do they want to see Syria turn into another Iraq that turned into an open battlefield for al-Qaeda and its sister organizations?
Iran regional quartet
Even Iran that is doing it best to support Assad is aware of the weakness of his regime and is preparing for his possible defeat. Why else would Iran hold on to the suggestion of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi about the formation of a regional quartet (Egypt, Turkey, Saudi, and Iran) to reach a resolution for the Syrian crisis? Doesn’t it realize that the other three members of this group reject Assad’s stay in power? Iran is aware of the losses it might sustain in Syria as well as in Iraq and Lebanon especially after Bahrain is out of its control and the Palestinian cause is no longer in its sphere of influence, but it would not necessarily lose everything if Syria turns into another Somalia or Afghanistan, as Brahimi had warned.
If the opposition is able to topple the regime in Damascus and Aleppo, Assad will seek refuge in the west coast and if regional and international conditions do not allow for the partition of Syria, he will retain his “legitimacy” as long as parties with veto powers do not alter their stance. Meanwhile, members of the opposition will start, or have already started, a power struggle in addition to another conflict with the Alawite coastal line and which might last forever. Add to this the burden of running cities that are now in ruins and an economy that needs billions of dollars to be revived. Will those warring factions have the energy to take part in regional issues like curbing the powers of Hezbollah or supporting Sunnis in Iraq? Unless, the Lebanese and the Iraqis are destined to engage in other civil wars.
Turkey, that has from the start supported the opposition, is concerned about the stability of its southern areas, especially with the borders open for refugees and fighters and who are irking large number in Antakya. Kurdish groups are also back to action and talk about an Alawite state or the partition of Syria and Iraq might eventually lead to the establishment of a Kurdish state. The Syrian crisis has also pinned Turkey in a confrontation with Tehran and Baghdad and it is trying to make up for that through enhancing its ties to Iraqi Kurdistan and trying to reach a settlement with the Kurdistan Workers Party. There is no need to mention Jordan’s concerns about what is happening in Syria and about the possible repercussions.
In the middle of all this, Brahimi is giving all parties fighting for and about Syria a pretext for inaction. Are the losses those parties sustain still not enough to constitute a direct threat to their interests? What about Syria? Is there anything it remains to lose?
*This article first appeared in al-Hayat on Jan. 14, 2013. Link: http://alhayat.com/OpinionsDetails/472165
Lebanese writer George Semaan started his career as the local political affairs editor in An-Nahar newspaper. He moved to London where he contributed to re-establishing al-Hayat, and was appointed as the managing editor. Being a deputy editor in chief at al-Hayat, he was also assigned as the editor-in-chief of al-Wasat newspaper. Later, he was assigned editor- in-chief of al-Hayat. Now he is the chief editor of the newsroom at al-Hayat LBC, an Arabic newspaper and television channel.