When Syrian opposition figures in the National Coalition reiterated that the political resolution alternative is not possible unless in case of a change in the balance of power on the ground, this meant they are explicitly admitting their inability to talk the regime into accepting an initiative that involves its departure. Their insistence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad steps down as the condition or the focus of any dialogue means they will never sit on the negotiating table. This can be attributed to several reasons, the most important of which is that the fighters on the ground reject such a step. It is clear that the main change in the balance of power is effected by the Friends of Syria who provide fighters with the ammunition that would enable them to strengthen their position and pose a real threat to the regime.
It is not new for the political and military opposition to ask for assistance, another term for the “foreign intervention” demand that divided opposition ranks at the onset of the uprising. Yet, this was an early acknowledgment that a change from within is far-fetched unlike the case of Iraq, where the members of the opposition entered on board American tanks. The opposition reiterates this acknowledgment on daily basis as it requests specialized weapons. That was its request on the eve of the first conference organized by Friends of Syria in Tunisia a year ago, but to no avail. The Friends clearly talked a year ago about al-Qaeda, Salafis, and Jihadists and about the “day after” Assad’s fall as well as the future of the new regime and the fate of minorities. And they left the door open for a political solution. Then they stood behind Arab initiatives until they faded out then were content, together with Damascus’s allies, with standing behind Kofi Anan until he had enough and quit to write the last chapter of his memoirs. Today, they are waiting for Lakhdar Brahimi’s initiative and who is turn waiting for them to reach an understanding so that he can launch an initiative.
Crisis spins in vicious circles
It is obvious that the Syrian crisis, which is about to end its second year, has been moving in vicious circles for more than a year, namely since each of the two conflicting parties realized that it cannot achieve a military victory that would tip the balance of power in its favor and allow it to win. The regime could not reach the closure it promised and in which it depended on weapons and money from Russia and Iran and its allies in Lebanon and Iraq. Meanwhile, fighters were not capable of establishing liberated zones that would provide it with leverage. Till now, the war in Syria is all about attack and retreat in most of the Syrian territories from border to border. Damascus, Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, Hama, Deir al-Zour, and Daraa were not liberated from the “Assad occupation” and the regime’s army and thugs were not able to eliminate the “terrorist groups” in these cities. What is certain is that the killing machine is making sure it destroys urban areas and forcefully evacuates those who were saved from rockets, planes, and mobile massacres.
What is more certain is that the regime is not capable of managing its war without regional and international support on all levels and similarly the opposition is not capable of changing the balance of power without regional and international assistance which, no matter how minimal, is enough to put an end to the regime’s illusions that it might score any victory that may turn back time. This leads to a clear conclusion: that the “battle” raging about initiatives of political solutions proposed by the two internal conflicting parties is occupying a space in the public sphere while those who can tip the balance in favor of any of the initiatives are the ones who can change the balance of power on the ground on the domestic level. Didn’t new American Secretary of State John Kerry reiterate that President Obama prefers a political solution through negotiating Assad’s departure? Didn’t he seem optimistic with the establishment of a formula in which the U.S. and Russia can find a “common ground” to reach such a solution? Didn’t the British defense minister stress the European tendency towards a political solution without military intervention? Isn’t that what allies of the Syrian regime want even though their vision of the solution could be different?
It is no secret that what is happening in Syria is a civil war that is expanding by the day and it is granted that such wars cannot end without negotiations and political solutions. The problem is not in the ouster of the regime. The regime fell with the first bullet fired at it. And the problem is not in the timing of the departure of the head of the regime and the group that operates the killing machine. The problem lies in the “external” clock that has not yet ticked. For almost a year, superpowers have been busy with their elections and domestic opposition and this includes Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Francois Holland. They stayed away for a while and when they settled in their seats, they started worrying about the changes brought about by the Arab Spring. They are undoubtedly reconsidering their stances on this “spring” and that is why their serious contribution to finding a resolution for the Syrian crisis was delayed.
Russia has been concerned about the rise of political Islam from the beginning, like it was concerned about foreign intervention and a reenactment of the Libyan scenario. Some Russian figures even accused the West of being behind this change. And the West that welcomed the ouster of dictatorial regimes and the advent of democracy even if at the hands of “moderate Islam,” was terrified by what is happening in Tunisia and Egypt where a worse form of dictatorship is expected to emerge. It was also terrified by what is happening in Libya whose arsenal was disbanded and is threatening the vital interests of France in particular and Europe in general in Niger with it uranium and Algeria with its oil and gas. This is apart from the waves of anti-American sentiments that were manifested on many occasions, the last of which was not the killing of the American ambassador in Benghazi or the attack on an oil facility in Algeria as well as attacks on diplomatic missions here and there.
Such developments in Arab Spring countries drove Americans and Europeans to slow down and reconsider their positions. This was demonstrated in their growing fear not only of al-Nusra Front, but also all political Islam movements. Their fears were shared by many Arabs who started worrying about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power and the increasing influence of Salafis and Jihadists. That explains their reluctance to provide Syrian opposition with effective armament. Therefore, when Washington asks the opposition to present its political platform in details, and which is to include the system of governance, the identity of the state, the constitution, and the future and role of all institutions, it is in fact asking for a platform that suits it. This is also what Moscow wants, though in a different manner.
A ‘confessional constitution’
For this reason, Syrians are neither required to agree on a “confessional constitution” like in Lebanon or Iraq and which forebodes the renewal of their wars. This might not be enough or it does not signal the possibility of an imminent solution. What is required is an American-Russian-Arab-Iranian “confessional” formula and agreeing on such an international-regional formula means agreeing on a new regional order in the Middle East. Facts show that such an agreement is not expected to happen any time soon, not before the situation is clarified in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya with its vast desert environs and in the Iranian nuclear file, the agenda of American-Iranian dialogue, and even the future of the national dialogue in Yemen and on which its unity depends. Add to this the future of the Palestinian cause and the role played by Israel and its new political and military ideologies dictated by the repercussions of the Arab Spring and the rise of extremists on both sides of the conflict.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the open confrontation between the superpowers of the greater Middle East is part of the bigger battle in East Asia, Central Asia, and most countries neighboring China and Russia. That is why the Obama Administration places the Pacific Rim and the China Sea on top of its political and military agenda while the Middle East retreated yet was not overlooked. This means that an agreement on the Arab region could be delayed until the situation is clarified in the open confrontation east of the continent unless the destiny of this area is to be divided as part of the comprehensive deal between superpowers and Syria would be the start. Will the International Community that headed to Yemen a few days ago to ensure its unity for fear of its dispersion along oil shores and its seas and straits turn a blind eye to another division of the Levant and the ramifications in the Arabian Peninsula to the South and Turkey to the north?
It is extremely important that the Syrian opposition presents its vision of the future or its initiative for a political solution not to become absorbed once more in side disputes, but to get ready for the decisive moment, as the humanitarian tragedy is going to impose its own timing on everyone and will soon be the top priority, and for facing the regime Washington and Moscow are planning to establish in Damascus.
This piece was first published in al-Hayat on Feb. 19, 2013
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.