Last Updated: Fri Mar 02, 2012 16:32 pm (KSA) 13:32 pm (GMT)

The Syrian crisis calculations

Osman Mirghani

As it approaches the one year landmark, the Syrian crisis has entered the stage of a race against time. On the one hand, the regime continues to commit excessive violence and killings, benefiting from the slack international community as well as regional and international complexities. On the other hand, the rebels have so far been able to withstand all, as opposition groups seek to increase pressure on the regime and convince hesitant international parties of their ability to organize themselves and present a ready alternative capable of reassuring – and gaining the support of – different components of society. The already complicated scene has been further compounded by the Russian-Chinese veto in the Security Council, and later by the "Friends of Syria" conference, which frustrated all those who pinned hope upon it and built up high expectations. The conference merely produced a general statement lacking in clear, practical steps that could change the reality on the ground. It only served to expose the gap between the different parties concerned, after the Westerners once again upheld their old stance rejecting military intervention, and their reservations even towards calls to arm the Syrian opposition.

The Syrian crisis will continue, until further notice, to remain captive of regional and international calculations and complexities. The ongoing bickering between a number of Western capitals, most prominently Washington on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other, reflects such complexities. Russia, despite its recent move to justify using its veto, still upholds its pro-Damascus stance and claims to be seeking a peaceful solution to ward off the evils of a civil war in Syria. At the same time, Moscow rejects using the United Nations as a tool for regime change.

In order to understand the Russian stance, we require an explanation that goes beyond the argument that Moscow felt deceived previously by the Security Council's resolution on Libya, and therefore it is now objecting to any resolution that leaves the door open for possible military intervention in Syria. Moscow is not only suspicious of Western stances towards Syria, but is also skeptical of Western movements near its vicinity. Russia still feels deeply humiliated as a result of the decline in its international influence, with the Western tern encroaching upon the former Soviet republics adjacent to its border.

In her memoirs published late last year, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a detailed account of her meeting with Vladimir Putin, in the wake of the “color revolutions” that broke out across a number of former Soviet republics. Rice says: "Putin told me he was opposed to any revolution from the street." Although he did not say explicitly during the meeting that his country considered these revolutions to be a Western plot, Rice interpreted Putin's words as an insinuation that such revolutions were a Western tool to divert Russia from its path. Such rhetoric may reflect Putin’s skeptical vision towards the current Arab revolutions, and the harmony he maintains with the position of the Syrian President, who also describes the uprising against his regime as a plot.

The irony of this situation is that the Western states that launched a fierce campaign against the Russian stance towards Syria now seem to have come to an agreement with Moscow, with regards to the need to find a political solution to end the crisis. Indeed, it has transpired that some Western states have advised the Arabs and the Syrian opposition not to close the door on Russia's calls for dialogue between the regime and the revolutionaries. How can this be explained? The West's strategy fluctuates between its desire to undermine the Syrian-Iranian axis and take Israel’s fears into account. Hence, the stance objecting to the armament of the Syrian opposition is understandable; for this could lead to a large-scale war provoking unrest along the Israeli border. The excuse of a “divided Syrian opposition” in order to justify not arming the rebels does not seem convincing when the same Western capitals previously backed the Libyan rebels with air-raids and intelligence information, and remained silent about their armament, although the Libyan opposition were far more dispersed than their Syrian counterparts.

Likewise, we can also refute the claim that arming the Syrian opposition would not necessarily ensure the overthrow of the al-Assad regime, as the balance of power would remain considerably in favor of the regime, and the increase of weapons in the battlefield would only mean more civilian victims. However, we could say that this situation also applied to the Libyan case; the Gaddafi regime was in possession of huge arsenal in the face of the rebels, and nevertheless, the West had no objections to arming the rebels; rather it encouraged such an endeavor.

The sole reason why the West is currently warning against arming the Syrian opposition is that the West is concerned about Israel. Washington, alongside a number of Western capitals, fears that an internal full-scale war may erupt, and uncontrolled security chaos may prevail. As a result, weapons may proliferate among parties stationed along the Israeli border, with the possible involvement of Jihadist groups.

The fears regarding Israel also include the possibility that the fall of the al-Assad regime may result in the Muslim Brotherhood rising to power, along the lines of Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. The last thing Israel would want is to find itself besieged by Muslim Brotherhood regimes along its border from Egypt to Syria, and pro-Iran movements from Hezbollah in Lebanon to Hamas in Gaza.

Such factors may help to explain the convergence between the West and Russia, and the preference for a political solution along the lines of Yemen. This would mean the handover of power whereby President al-Assad would leave, but part of his regime would remain in power alongside the opposition in order to maintain stability, and prepare for a gradual internal change. If this solution proves impossible and the crisis is further prolonged, then Israel would also derive benefits, provided that confrontations with heavily armed fighters do not extend towards its border. Prolonging the crisis may grant Washington and Israel more time to make a decision with regards to launching a military strike against Iran, as Syria would then be preoccupied with its internal situation, and Hezbollah would be lacking its main supply route.

The only factor that can disrupt these complicated elements lies in the Syrian people's ability to escalate their uprising in a manner that undermines the regime and intensifies the pressure on the international community, prompting it to reconsider its calculations.

The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat on Feb. 2, 2012

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