By Saeed Naqvi
The New Year promises to be better for the Syrian people because diplomacy, not conflict, appears to be coming on top. The brazen indifference to the question “what after Bashar al Assad?” appears to be giving way to sober reflection on just that point.
Remember Hillary Clinton waving her hand in one, big arc to exhort the Syrian leader: “get out of the way, Assad!” And this, soon after her performance in Tripoli: “I came, I saw and he died!” That tone is missing in recent Western statements.
The US, Europe, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia on the one side and Russia, China and Iran on the other, are inching their way backwards to resurrect the six point Geneva declaration of June 30.
The US Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has been meeting relevant leaders. It was on the margins of OECD summit in Dublin, that Brahimi, Foreign Ministers of Russia and the US discussed what were later leaked as “creative” new ideas for peace in Syria.
There is in this turn of events considerable disappointment for lobbies who have sought regime change from day one of the Syrian crisis, atleast since the summer of 2011.
I have been arguing from August of that year that toppling of Assad was not possible in a hasty time-frame for a simple reason. In many ways the two Baathist regimes of Saddam Hussain and Bashar al Assad are mirror images of each other. The US had to occupy Iraq for ten years, kill Saddam Hussain, dismantle the Baath structure before leaving behind the mess that country is today.
How naïve, then, of Western governments and their allies to expect the Syrian regime to fall by a proxy war, fuelling admittedly powerful internal dissent?
Ofcourse, the expanding areas of internal dissent in Syria, totally dependent on foreign funds and arms, did test Russian resolve to a point that, at one stage, it appeared to be cracking.
A highly placed source in Moscow told me last July: “Putin’s stakes are high in Syria but they are astronomically higher in Russia.” His tongue-in-cheek comment implied that Moscow would go as far with Assad as its own interest dictated.
The Supreme header in Iran was sharp in his response. If Russia changed track at this juncture it would lose not one but two Middle Eastern friends: Syria and Iran. The logic was exactly what I had opened this column with – after Assad what?
What negates “remove-Assad-first” strategy is Washington’s very own step of declaring Al Nusra a terrorist organization. Groups under its control have clearly hijacked what was thought to be a resistance movement.
There are reasons why a rethink on Syria is gaining ground in Washington. The US has learnt a bitter lesson in Libya where absence of governance, millions of Qaddafi era weapons in the hands of quarrelling tribes, growing extremism, all climaxing in the murder of the US ambassador, have cumulatively shaken the American military-intelligence community.
The US is entering its trickiest phase in the Af-Pak region, where elections are due in both, Pakistan and Afghanistan just around the time Washington has set for its troops to depart. Can troops depart without an overt or covert understanding with Iran which has a long border with Afghanistan? Rubbing Iran’s nose in Syria would be self defeating on that count, among others.
Obama in his second term would have his eyes set on a place in history as a world statesman rather than a President aiming only for a second term. He has already hinted at his preferred trajectory in Foreign Affairs by ushering in John Kerry as Secretary of State.
It would have been difficult for Hillary Clinton to revert, to the Geneva Plan of Kofi Annan’s which talks of a “Syrian led” transitional government, without insisting on Assad’s removal.
When asked at a press conference, Lavrov said: Assad will not go even if Russia and China ask him to. An assertive Assad told Brahimi in their last meeting that the regime will talk to the opposition provided they do not insist on imposing Shariah law on secular Syria. Also, the opposition must accept Damascus’s stand never to sign an agreement with Israel until the Jewish state returns all Syrian lands. This strikes at the heart of a possible entente with Israel which Muslim Brotherhood groups from Tunisia to Turkey have reportedly conceived at the conference with the Syrian opposition held in Istanbul in April.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)