Arab World · Politics · Terrorism

Syria: 1 year later

Pro-Assad Rally Held in Damascus, Syria

While one year after start of the conflict Syria is plagued by a new wave of violence, international efforts to stop hostilities are surprisingly not losing steam. A team of international experts, dispatched by UN-Arab League Special envoy Kofi Annan, landed in Syria this Monday for talks on a monitoring operation to try and end the conflict.

Meanwhile, the same day International Red Cross head Jakob Kellenberger paid a visit to Moscow to discuss with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov how to ease the aggravating humanitarian crisis in Syria’s major cities.

In another dramatic development the day after talks with his Lebanese counterpart Adnan Mansuri in Moscow, Minister Lavrov said Russia is ready to support a United Nations resolution endorsing Kofi Annan’s plan for settling the Syrian crisis. In addition, it was also reported that Syrian opposition leaders might meet Sergey Lavrov soon.

Syria is making headlines week after week. However, this time we are probably witnessing some rare genuine efforts on the part of the world powers to iron out their differences over how the conflict should be handled. This was something global the discussion on Syria has been desperately lacking in recent months.

What we have seen before in the span of the year was pointing fingers and trading accusations. No surprise, that all previous attempts to adopt UN Security Council resolution failed. As things stand today, the Security Council is still divided.

However, while there is no end to hostilities on either side, there is at least some reason to believe that world powers are inching towards a compromise.

The Syrian Opposition in a show of unity, out to bury 'the martyrs'

I think the turning point came when Sergey Lavrov paid a visit to Cairo on his way to UN headquarters. Diplomatic sources say Mr. Lavrov had a very frank, though tough discussion with the Arab League which is believed to be strongly anti-Assad. The outcome was a joint five-point plan for Syria, endorsed by Russia and the Arab League.

According to the plan, the violence on both sides should stop immediately and all parties should enter into negotiations. In addition, no foreign powers should intervene in the conflict while Syrian authorities should allow humanitarian organizations unrestricted access to the major Syrian cities and areas hit by violence. And the key role in resolving the conflict should be played by UN Special envoy, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

In fact, Kofi Annan’s mission comes as a moment of truth. He has already visited Damascus in recent weeks, but so far his efforts have brought no results. The Syrian army continues its offensive to suppress the pockets of resistance. And President Assad looks defiant.

The signals coming from Damascus are really confusing. It is quite difficult to understand what Assad’s game really implies. This reminds me of President Assad’s former cat-and-mouse games with the Arab League, when he gave promises and then backtracked.

In any case, Mr. Annan is not losing optimism, while being engaged in a shuttle diplomacy waging an uphill battle for peace. The Syrian opposition – mostly its hard-line party – is stubbornly resisting the very idea of any negotiations with Assad.

This is a situation where a lot will depend on our Western partners. I understand their strong dislike of Assad. They have already written him off. But Assad is still a reality, he is the elected president, he is supported by more than half of the population, he controls Syrian army, and finally, he does not want to leave right now.

Assad-haters in the West and in the Gulf have to understand one simple thing: there is no way to remove Assad overnight. So they have to be more relevant, more pragmatic in their assessment of the situation.

I think that if the West would be able to tone down its anti-Assad rhetoric, at least for the time being, and send a clear message to the opposition for restraint – well, there can still be dialogue, despite so much blood spilled.

Furthermore, the West should throw its weight behind the idea of the negotiations between Assad and his opponents. The current deadlock does not mean that the idea of the dialogue is dead.

A young girl flashing the peace sign during a Pro-Assad rally in Idlib

While saying that, I propose that you imagine what might happen if there is no political process restarted and we only see more bloodshed. The first thing we have to say is that there is no way to uproot the Syrian regime in a blitz war. European colleagues in Brussels privately acknowledge that, after Libya, NATO is not greedy to get involved in Syria, as it would be much more difficult conflict than Libya was.

Meanwhile, Russian military experts warn that Syria is neither Saddam’s Iraq nor Libya. It has a strong army and advanced air-defense systems which will enable it to repulse the attacks for quite a long time before it exhausts resources and combat spirit.

Let us also not forget that Assad has many ways to retaliate. Human Rights Watch reports Syrian forces have already placed landmines near the borders with Lebanon and Turkey. Assad can also destabilize the situation in neighboring Turkey, say, by using Kurds who are at odds with Ankara.

And if civil war continues this will inevitably lead to the more meddling from Iran, which wants to preserve the Syrian regime at any cost. Needless to say, growing Iranian activity is the last thing the entire Arab world and the Gulf monarchies want.

A political solution meets the interests of all sides. But let us come back to Russia’s position. In recent months Russia has came under strong criticism for what is supposed to be lifting Assad an “oxygen bag”. A Russian colleague who was on a visit with Minister Lavrov in Cairo said there were some noisy protests involving egg-throwing on the part of the Syrian opposition.

However, in New York Sergey Lavrov made it clear that Russia is by no means an advocate of the Syrian regime. What Russia can never agree to is any unilateral decision pushed through UN Security Council. Let me quote Lavrov: “The founding fathers of the UN decided that unless the permanent members agreed on something, decisions could not be sustainable. Let’s try to be respectful of each other.”

The Free Syrian Army

I think that, while strongly criticized, Russia’s policy has already brought results, if it is appropriate to speak of any positive results in a time of ongoing civil war. Nevertheless, let me spell it out. The idea of the military operation endorsed by UN Security Council, for the time being has failed. Russia prevented Syria from Libyan-style toppling of the government and sliding into chaos.

Is the military intervention in Syria completely ruled out by now? While in Brussels they are very reluctant to start the military operation, there has been a lot of debate in recent weeks over reports that the Obama administration is considering military involvement in Syria. It was at this time that GOP member Walter Jones introduced a resolution in the House saying that any unauthorized offensive use of force“constitutes an impeachable high crime and misdemeanor.”

Though Congressman Jones could hardly voice a dominant mood in the Congress, provided he takes a risk to intervene, President Obama could face some sort of moral impeachment in the world.

Just imagine: “Nobel Peace Prize-winner launches a war”. Even in the case of the Libyan war, Obama was very careful to show it was a NATO-led operation, not an adventure of his own.

Let us keep our fingers crossed he will launch it neither in Syria, nor in Iran.

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