[email protected]

November 18, 2012, Sunday

Syria on a knife’s edge

Fighting in Syria has already spilled over into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, with Israel becoming increasingly anxious.

According to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Syrian rebels now control almost all the villages near the frontier with the Israel-held Golan Heights, bringing the conflict dangerously close. In the worst case scenario, it could result in a possible armed clash, further inflaming an already imploding region.

Yet even if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were toppled tomorrow, it would not mean an end to the violence. It would seem likely that the Alawites would fight till the death, till the last man fell, because they believe that if the opposition forces win they are all going to die anyway. Moreover, with the chains of command unraveling and unpredictable Kalashnikov-armed men running around, the situation will remain very dangerous indeed -- more so with the presence of chemical weapons. Unfortunately, as has previously been the case, the international community does not seem to have spent much time thinking about what “the day after Assad” will look like, and keeping that in focus. What sort of Syria will we be left with, and what are we going to do about it? We certainly don’t want another Iraq, where “a free-for-all” took place. It is still unclear what new measures, if any, Washington is planning. Even in this post-election period, there are no certainties that President Barack Obama is ready to spend his political capital on the Middle East.

All eyes and hopes are now pinned on the new “National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces,” which was unveiled in Doha last Sunday. Aimed at uniting the various factions seeking to overthrow President Assad, it has been supported by the West, Turkey and the Arab League, although not all Arab League States recognize the Coalition.

The Arab League has indicated it will raise the Syrian crisis issue again with the UN Security Council. Renewed efforts are underway to convince the Russians (and the Chinese) to change their policy. Yet both seem set to stick to their long-held policy of a political transition led by the Syrian people, with no outside interference. The Russian Foreign Ministry has said, “The National Coalition should seek a peaceful resolution of the conflict by Syrians themselves, without external interference, through dialogue and negotiations.” While Russia has been accused of prolonging the Syrian crisis by blocking efforts of the UN Security Council, Moscow continues to believe it is on “the right side of history,” that the way to deal with a fragmented country is not by taking sides and arming it, and that the French recognition of the new coalition is a mistake.

Then we come to Iran, which is presently viewed as a toxic element in Syria by the West, although the same is not expressed -- at least openly -- about Saudi Arabia and its support of fundamentalist Salafi Jihadi groups in Syria, which is increasingly counterproductive. Iran needs to be involved in talks on Syria because it has influence. It is not helpful to ignore Tehran. While it seems Europe is not opposed to having Iran in the “solution loop,” the US cannot see beyond Iran’s nuclear program. All other issues are viewed through this prism. This policy of isolating Iran at any cost is short-sighted and lacks any sort of logic. There is a need to speak with the enemy’s friend, even if that friend is viewed by the West as its enemy.

While for Iran the biggest nightmare in a post-Assad regime would be a hardcore Sunni state buoyed by Saudi Arabia, it is a mistake to believe Tehran will fight for Assad to stay at any cost. Hopes of maintaining Assad as an ally have diminished. Tehran has reached out to other opposition groups, starting to hedge its bets.

In order to find a viable solution, there needs to be regional ownership. If there is not, the risk of failure and further regional instability remains high. Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems with this region is that all the actors have a zero-sum game mindset. They simply cannot go beyond thinking that one country’s gain is another country’s loss.

Previous articles of the columnist