Syria's civil war is a fight to the finish with great power politics at stake
Almost a year and a half into Syria’s civil war, one United Nations special envoy – the veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi – has replaced another one, Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary general who threw in the towel on an “impossible mission”. So it might be time to end the pretence and draw some lessons from the situation.
The first point is that whoever thinks or thought, even for a moment, that China and Russia would go along with endorsing UN action that would help end the Assad regime urgently needs a crash course in realpolitik. Vladimir Putin has been fulminating for 20 years about how the US and the West in general have been taking advantage of the disintegration of the Soviet Union to reduce Russia’s power on the global scene and downgrade its role and influence. The Russian president feels he has been cheated over Libya, when Moscow was made to agree to a UN mandate — officially to save civilian lives, when in fact the whole thing turned out to be about regime change in Tripoli. There is no chance whatsoever that he will ever be convinced to provide any support at the UN Security Council to an action that would provide international cover and/or legitimacy to the removal of regimes that Washington, London or Paris have come to abhor for whatever reason.
When it comes to China, it is difficult to see any reason why it would deviate from its 30-year-old policy of official non-interference, under whatever auspices, in what it sees as the strict internal affairs of another country. In addition to that, the very notion of regime change engineered or supported by outside forces is absolute anathema to the country’s leaders, who will always see in it a very dangerous precedent that could one day backfire on them.
So, Mr Annan’s so-called peace plan was dead from the outset, since its success rested on the ability of a united UN Security Council to exert the kind of pressures that would impose a solution on the protagonists in Syria. And this prerequisite – which is not anywhere close to being met – remains the same for any successor to Mr Annan. Thus, chances are that we will continue to see the same kind of make-believe activities at the UN level that everybody knows will lead nowhere. This is part of an accepted charade whereby institutions and/or diplomatic outfits feel they need to be seen as “doing something”.
Against this background of paralysis on the part of the UN – and, thus, a near-zero chance that the UN envoy will achieve anything – the Gulf countries, specifically Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are intensifying their support for the anti-regime forces in Syria. They have always hated the Assad regime, in large part owing to Bashar al-Assad’s role as a bridgehead for Tehran’s activities and interests in West Asia, and its role as a conduit for Iranian support to Hezbollah and Hamas. Iran is on the defensive thanks to the growing impact of Western sanctions against its nuclear ambitions and by the victories and advances of the Muslim Brotherhood – not much of a friend for the Ayatollahs because of its strict Sunni orientation – and so the Saudis and the Qataris consider that this is a good time to deal another blow to Iran’s position by doing whatever they can to eliminate the Assad regime.
Saudi and Qatari policy serves, wonderfully, the interests of Washington, London and Paris as they now want to get rid of the Assad regime – not just for “humanitarian” reasons but also with the Iranian factor in mind – but don’t want to be at the forefront of providing weapons and equipment to the anti-Assad forces. The picture remains murky about the balance of forces among the different groups fighting the regime, and it is possible that the weapons delivered might one day be turned against the US or Western forces by some of the Islamist groups among the anti-Assad camp.
As Bashar al-Assad continues to receive military assistance from Iran, this means that the fighting will continue until one of the two camps is able to fully overwhelm the other one on the battlefield — or win by attrition. Neither Assad nor the different anti-regime groups can accept any kind of interim “unity government” as was advocated earlier: both parties know this is just an irrelevant notion. Even in countries with a long history and tradition of political conciliation and compromise, and where political conflict and opposition do not mean life or death, unity governments are most difficult to put together and to sustain. So to think that this kind of option could be feasible or relevant in the Syrian context is fanciful.
The fact is that Syria is embroiled in a civil war, and civil wars don’t end in a draw. Bashar al-Assad knows well that there is no graceful or safe exit for him; his opponents know that they will either sustain the fight and prevail or end up dead. This is a fight to the finish. For how long will that continue? Nobody knows. The regime has been losing ground, affected by a number of defections and the suicide attack in July that killed four of Bashar al-Assad’s closest security people — including his brother-in-law and his defence minister. However, it continues to benefit from the support of different groups among the population who don’t want to see the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist groups take over in Syria. On the other side, the anti-regime groups are not united — beset by a lack of co-ordination and, already, a lot of jostling for power. However, while the human cost of the conflict will, sadly, keep increasing, the risk of a dangerous spillover to Lebanon remains limited, as is the risk of use of chemical weapons by the regime — if only because of the complexity of the situation on the ground.
In that context, expect everybody – whether in Riyadh, Doha, Washington or Paris – to stick to the basics of realpolitik by supporting directly or indirectly the group or camp whose victory would best serve their strategic interests. The rest is just make-believe.
The writer is president of Smadja & Smadja, a strategic advisory firm
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