Syria: No hint of progress
Not surprisingly, peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s most recent visit to Syria and his meeting with the embattled President Bashar Assad has yielded no marked progress to speak of. Although the Syrian president was talking to Brahimi from a position of weakness, it does not seem that he would acquiesces to the American-Russian initiative to settle the crisis politically. Meanwhile, the fight continues unabated. “The situation in Syria is still worrying and we hope that all parties would adopt a solution that would meet the aspirations of the Syrian people,” Brahimi said.
While Lakhdar Brahimi has been pushing for any agreement or headway in Damascus, perhaps he needs to learn from his predecessor Kofi Annan who resigned four months ago after he failed to broker a cease-fire. Apparently, Assad is still using the same old tactic: Buying time! All previous attempts to bring about cease-fire and set up a transitional government have failed and rejected by one party or another. And yet, Brahimi is pushing for the establishment of a transitional government with Assad!
The situation in Syria cannot be more complicated. The country has already descended into a sectarian conflict. It seems that any political initiative that grants Assad a role will not work. Moreover, the dominant perception in Syria and abroad is that the days of Assad are numbered. Barring any international plan to deal with a post-Assad Syria, the conflict will continue in the war-racked nation after Assad’s departure or death.
A close look at the nature of the fighting around major cities reveals a grim picture. The fault line in these key cities has been consolidated around sects. Rubbing salt into the wound, the most radical Islamist groups — some are aligned with Al-Qaeda — have gained more strength recently. These groups, according to many reports, have been the beneficiaries of the latest battles. In other words, they have been at the forefront of the fight against the embattled regime forces and achieved headways.
Most disturbing is the continuous fragmentation of the fighters. Therefore, the situation in a post-Assad Syria will not be benign. After his meeting with Assad a few days ago, Brahimi described the situation in Syria “worrying.” The continuous achievements of opponents of Assad can lead to unthinkable scenarios. The only game-changer in this case is either the use of the stockpile of chemical weapons or to reach a political solution that could be implemented.
On the ground, Assad’s forces have lost their ability to mount major offense while the anti-Assad forces have rolled up some key land gains. Needless to say, the fighters have improved their fighting capabilities thus acquired a sort of psychological supremacy.
Seen in this way, Assad may not hold on to power for a long time. Perhaps, we will see his end in weeks to come. And yet, stabilizing a post-Assad Syria is the responsibility of the international community and particularly the United States who has failed to demonstrate leadership in the Syrian two-year crisis. The inaction of the United States has emasculated Washington and prevented it from playing a key role in the crisis. Not surprisingly, many fighters have given up on the United States and thus turned toward Islamists who have anti-American attitude. For instance, the Al-Nusra Front — a terrorist group as far as the United States is concerned — has got a boost after they helped fighters defeat the regime forces in key battles.
That said, many observers hailed the arm’s-length policy adopted by the Obama administration. They argue that President Obama has succeeded in bringing Assad to the brink of total defeat and submission. Assad’s implicit readiness to negotiate a way out of the crisis would not have been possible without American indirect efforts through its proxies in the region.
Just a few days ago, the head of Syria’s military police defected and declared his allegiance to the fighters. “I am Gen. Abdelaziz Jassim Al-Shalal, head of the military police. I have defected because of the deviation of the army from its primary duty of protecting the country and its transformation into gangs of killing and destruction,” the general said in a video posted on the Internet.
In short, Assad is losing ground for the fighters. But the progress has to wait for sometime. Unless Assad personally feels that his days are numbered and that time is not in his favor, he is not expected to budge. In other words, it is not about whether Brahimi is going to succeed in convincing Assad to cooperate with the Russian-American ideas but it is the evolving balance of power on the ground that will decide Assad’s policy options.