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May 27, 2012, Sunday

A new phase in Syria?

Last week we witnessed an important development in the most critical and urgent issue in the Middle East: the situation in Syria. Earlier this month, the regime claimed that Islamist terrorists linked to Al Qaeda organized an attack that killed more than 50 people in Damascus. Now it looks like the regime is taking its revenge by stepping up its bloody crackdown. In Houla, near Homs the Syrian forces recently killed more than 100 people, among them 32 children, in just one day.

Now that a new and bloodier phase of the Syrian uprising has begun, the international community is facing a new paradigm in Syria. The urgent question is whether these new dynamics on the ground will lead the US to change its strategy. So far, the primary objective of President Barack Obama’s administration has been to avoid military involvement and allow maximum flexibility for a diplomatic breakthrough in Syria. In the absence of any willingness to take military action, Washington enthusiastically supported a series of “Friends of Syria” international conferences, including one organized in the American capital itself last month.

Such preference for diplomacy, or for “strategic patience” as it is sometimes called,  is partly dictated by the American electoral calendar. The Obama administration will be extremely reluctant to take any kind of military action in either the Syrian or Iranian context before November, when the American people will go to the ballot box and hopefully re-elect the incumbent.

Washington is reluctant to take radical steps in Syria and Iran because the top priority of the administration right now is to maintain a certain amount of stability in oil prices -- a critical issue for the American economy and consumer confidence. Since the price of gasoline and consumer confidence are key determinants of electoral behavior, the administration cannot afford a military confrontation in the Middle East which could easily double the price of oil. Such a scenario could easily cost Obama the presidential elections because the American economy is undergoing a very weak recovery and unemployment is still at eight percent. Obama’s Republican opponent will have a real shot at winning if consumer confidence drops further.

But given the new and more bloody phase in Syria’s descent into civil war, will there be a change in the American strategy? It looks like there is indeed a new American diplomatic initiative in place. But those who are expecting a militarization of the situation with American or NATO involvement will continue to be disappointed. According to the New York Times the new plan calls “for a negotiated political settlement that would satisfy Syrian opposition groups but that could leave remnants of Mr. Assad’s government in place. Its goal is the kind of transition under way in Yemen, where after months of violent unrest, President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to step down and hand control to his vice president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in a deal arranged by Yemen’s Arab neighbors”

Would this Yemen model work for Syria ? As any observer of the Middle East would quickly point out that the stakes in Syria are much higher. The Syrian regime is protected by powerful regional forces such as Iran and global actors such as Russia and China. In Yemen such dynamics simply did not exist. Given the impossibility of convincing Iran, the real question becomes whether Washington can convince Russia that the Yemen model is the best option for Syria.

Again, according to the New York Times, the Obama administration found some receptive ears: “When Mr. Obama brought it up with Prime Minister [Dmitry] Medvedev of Russia at the Group of 8 meeting at Camp David last weekend, Mr. Medvedev appeared receptive, American officials said, signaling that Russia would prefer that option to other transitions in the Arab upheaval.”

The only problem is that more than Medvedev, it is President Vladimir Putin who makes the decisions in Russia. A meeting between Putin and the US National Security Advisor which took place in Moscow was reportedly inconclusive. All these seem to indicate nothing new will emerge from the new phase of the civil war in Syria. As the common refrain goes: “things will have to get worse before they get better.” The question is: how much worse can it get?

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