Talks between President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian rebels planned for June 10 show both sides realise the crisis is at a stalemate and that only a negotiated solution or foreign military intervention will bring it to a conclusion, says Zvi Bar'el.
The rationale for avoiding foreign military intervention in Syria, which is based on the fear of an outbreak of regional war, continues to lose relevance. The chances for a negotiated solution to the conflict between the rebels and the regime of Syrian leader Bashar Assad are poor and the tragic humanitarian crisis hasn't yet moved even one of the world powers to action.
Barring a decisive military outcome in the near future, the Syrian civil war is likely to continue for years and lead to violent spillovers in neighboring countries like the recent terror attacks in Turkey, the power struggles in Lebanon, the threat of Al-Qaida in Jordan and fire directed at Israel. In fact, just on Tuesday, Syria took responsibility for the first time for fire directed toward Israeli army vehicles.
More seriously, Israel is already involved in the conflict and is threatening to topple the Assad regime. The Turkish army is maintaining a level of high preparedness along its border with Syria. The strengthening forces of the Jordanian army are prepared to respond, and Iran and Hezbollah are already participating in battles. Under such conditions, the initiative to determine when and if to set off the regional powder keg has fallen into Assad's hands. The recognition of this threat is what stands at the center of the United States' agreement to leave Assad in power as long as negotiations will be conducted with the rebels.
The announcement by Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy for the Syrian crisis, that the Syrian regime and the rebels have agreed to participate in talks in Geneva, still awaits official confirmation by the Syrian regime and the rebels. But even if the two sides do officially and publicly announce their willingness to conduct talks, some explosive issues must be addressed ahead of the meeting.
Based on reports from the Arabic press, Assad has already appointed five senior officials to manage regime affairs, although their names have not been made public, and their positions and the powers given to them by Assad remain unclear. On the rebels' side, it isn't clear who among the opposition forces will participate in the talks or if all of the members of the national coalition's leadership will agree to participate after the strident disputes among them following the agreement of former leader Moaz al-Khatib to conduct negotiations with Assad without preconditions. It also isn't clear if the commanders of the Free Syrian Army will be party to the dialogue, and if the very existence of the conference won't split the fighters' forces.
The agreement of the parties to participate in a conference is an important development because it means the opposition has suspended its basic condition that Assad abdicate before dialogue begins. If indeed opposition representatives participate in talks, this will be an important victory for Assad and, of course, to the Russian, Chinese and Iranian position, who have sought to keep Assad in power. It will also constitute a failure for the American position, who also called for Assad's removal before dialogue would take place between the Syrian government and rebels.
Calling for the conference, which is planned for June 10, attests to the understanding between both sides that the crisis has reached a stalemate and that only a negotiated solution or foreign military intervention will bring it to a conclusion. These two possibilities are still far from being realized, however it appears that both sides can start making mistakes.
A year ago, then Central Intelligence Agency director Gen. David Petraeus suggested to U.S. President Barack Obama that he arm the Syrian opposition. Obama listened to him, but refused. It’s hard to evaluate how the Syrian conflict would have looked had Obama acceded or if NATO forces had intervened then, as they did in Libya, by bombing the presidential palace and its inhabitants. Assad would probably have been consigned to the dustbin of history, the lives of tens of thousands of people would have been saved, but it is highly doubtful if Syria would have been stabilized.
It is enough to look at the venomous and violent feuds and disputes among different opposition factions and hundreds of militias that are fighting in Syria to understand that the removal of the Syrian president would not have prevented a civil war.
But timely military intervention, say a year ago, could have made clear to Assad that the threat to him isn't just from civilians and armed deserters but that he was also facing the international police, the same one that removed Muammar Gadhafi from power in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and that frightened Hosni Mubarak into standing down in Egypt and is threatening Iran.
True, there is a two-fold fear that prevented this: First, the response from Russia, which put its foot down to prevent a recurrence of Libya in Syria, and second, that such an attack would likely instigate an anti-Western response in general and an anti-American response in particular in the Middle East. But the policy that was implemented then and the policy that is being adopted now are no less dangerous.
The United States chose an ambiguous policy that lacked a straightforward "yes or no" stance. The United States is funding opposition group activities and even sending rebel forces "non-lethal" military gear, but no military intervention. But it is also supporting negotiations between the regime and the opposition but not including Assad in them, all while levying sanctions on Syria but permitting oil purchases from the rebels.
This policy led to a dead-end and gave rise to the assumption that the stalemate between the regime and rebel forces will force both sides to talk, sketch an outline for a political settlement and accept a compromise to be formulated in the White House and the Kremlin. At first glance, this is a reasonable working assumption; however, it contains a minor flaw: It still lacks a firm basis.
"To resign means to flee," Assad said last week in an interview with the Argentinian newspaper Clarin. Assad has no intention of resigning, fleeing or abstaining from standing as a candidate for the presidency in next year's Syrian elections.
For a while now, this war has not been about a regime change in Syria but about Arab and Western control and influence there, or at least an attempt to preserve the historical distribution of Western and Russian spheres of influence in the Middle East.
This kind of war cannot wait to see which militia will come out on top, what territory will remain in the hands of the rebels or Assad, or who will possess Syria's chemical weapons and long range missiles. It should probably be acknowledged that the long delay in dispatching forces and the absence of a resolute policy of providing military aid to the rebels have thwarted the rebellion's chances of success just as these very reasons thwarted the success of the Shi'ite rebellion against Saddam Hussein's rule in Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the First Gulf War.
This is the bitter pill that Western and Arab countries will have to swallow, because the alternative, the continuation of hollow chit-chat, is far more dangerous. Perhaps within this is buried the most significant chance for the success of the Geneva talks.
By Zvi Bar'el, Haaretz
Date created : 2013-05-16