Osama Al Sharif
Wednesday 2 January 2013
Last Update 1 January 2013 11:25 pm
Few observers have doubts that 2013 will be decisive for the two-year-old Syrian crisis, which has descended into a hellish civil and sectarian war claiming the lives of no less than 40,000 people thus far. It has become a regional and international affair, with so many intersecting, and conflicting, interests by a growing number of countries. UN and Arab League emissary Lakhdar Brahimi still believes a political settlement is possible.
While he has denied the existence of a US-Russian peace plan, both Washington and Moscow appear to have moved closer to each other in identifying the main points of a possible road map to end Syria’s bloody war.
While in Moscow earlier in the week Brahimi spoke of a transitional government in Syria representing the regime and the opposition and enjoying full authority. It would prepare the ground for elections and would enjoy international backing. The fate of President Bashar Assad, under the initiative, is not clear, but the Syrian National Coalition has rejected any offer that would allow him to stay until 2014.
Syria’s position on the Brahimi initiative is also unclear. But in recent days fighting between the regular army and the opposition took a turn for the worst. Forces loyal to Assad have intensified their bombing of besieged cities in Aleppo, Hums, Deraa and suburbs of Damascus. The opposition accused the regular army of committing cold-blooded murders of civilians in Homs and of bombing buildings in various parts of the country. A major battle to retake Dariya, near the capital, is about to take place.
While the fighting goes on, Brahimi is trying to build support for his peace deal. He is facing resistance from countries that support the fighters including Qatar and Turkey. On the face of it Iran, a major ally of Assad, is also favoring a political deal that involves cessation of hostilities and open negotiations. Tehran’s role in Syria is extremely important as it is allegedly supplying Damascus with weapons including short-range ballistic missiles. The fighters have said that Iran has dispatched members of the Revolutionary Guards to fight along the side of the regular army.
A US-Russian understanding on Syria would probably remove Assad from the picture, but allow the regime to survive. Both Washington and Moscow have genuine misgivings on who will take over in Syria if the regime collapses.
Radical Islamist fighters, including ones with ideological links to Al-Qaeda, are said to be leading the fight against Assad forces in Aleppo and in Damascus countryside. A spokesman for Jabhat Al Nusra, a group that was labeled by the Americans as a terrorist organization, announced this week that after the fall of Assad, Syria will be ruled by the “mujahideen.” Few weeks ago a coalition of opposition forces, also led by Jabhat Al Nusra, announced the birth of an Islamic state in Aleppo.
These mostly Salafist groups do not recognize the authority of the Syrian National Council (SNC) or the new Syrian National Coalition, both of which are dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. It is almost certain that if and when the regime falls, opposition forces on the ground will have the final word on the fate of new Syria. A Taleban-like enclave emerging in Syria is a cause of concern for Syria’s immediate neighbors including Jordan, Lebanon and Israel, not to mention the United States and Russia.
While the opposition in exile has rejected any settlement that would allow Assad to stay even for few months, some observers believe that if both Moscow and Washington adopt such a plan they will attempt to enforce it at any cost. Tehran may be tempted to join in if it means that it will continue to have some influence inside Syria. Ankara, who is concerned about the threat of an autonomous Kurdish enclave in Syria, will also tag along.
It will be ironic if such an international and regional coalition decides to get involved militarily to implement such a plan. It will mean that coalition forces could find themselves fighting extremist groups who refuse to abide by the peace plan. It is a likely scenario that elicits memories of the Iraq invasion and occupation.
Just as Brahimi said, a political deal would have been easier to implement in the early stages of the conflict. Now the choices are dire for all.
Choosing not to get involved now will drive the country toward inevitable partition into Alawite, Sunni, Druze and Kurdish regions. A long and bloody sectarian war is almost a certainty.
For this new consensus to materialize President Assad must admit defeat and allow a transitional government to be formed with full authority. This is the only way to spare the country a fate of partition and sectarian wars, while giving Al-Qaeda affiliates a foothold in Syria.