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Syria: No political solution in sight

It is clear now that the United States and Russia are unable to agree on what has become the cornerstone of any political solution to the 22-month-old Syrian crisis: The fate of President Bashar Assad. A meeting in Geneva by representatives of the two nations with UN/Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has failed to move beyond an agreement in principle to seek a political way out of the crisis. There was an understanding that a transitional phase is needed to prepare for elections and a new constitution.
But while the US, and Brahimi, see no role for Assad in this transitional period, Russia insists that it is impossible to implement any plan that would exclude the Syrian president. Moscow’s position does not appear to have changed much on this crucial point. It insists that Assad’s exit from power must not be a precondition for a political solution in Syria
Two weeks ago President Assad came up with his own three-stage plan to end the crisis that has claimed the lives of no less than 60,000, mostly civilians. He spoke of a political charter, a new constitution and future elections, but made no reference to his own fate. He also dismissed the opposition in exile as slaves of the west. His plan is in alignment with an Iranian road map suggested few weeks earlier. Moscow too supported Assad’s plan.
The Syrian opposition has rejected any suggestion of a political settlement that does not kick off with Assad’s ouster. But rifts within the local opposition, the so-called coordination committees, have appeared recently.
Brahimi has shrugged off Assad’s proposals and said the Syrian president could not play a part in an interim administration which must have complete authority.
While it is good that most parties agree on a political solution, the irony is that both the regime and the fighters are locked in a bloody confrontation on the ground. It is clear that neither party will be able to settle the conflict militarily anytime soon. This week the fighters scored a major win by taking over the strategic air base of Taftanaz near Aleppo. But the regime also made progress by finally clearing most fighters from the southern Damascus suburb of Dariya after besieging it for weeks.
Assad’s defiant speech underlined his determination to fight until the end.
In his view Syria is a victim of an international conspiracy to weaken it and then divide it. He blamed foreign militants, who are supported by regional and international parties, for the bloodbath and for turning Syria into a base for terrorists. While his assumptions may be based on facts, he was off the mark when he failed to admit that his people were also engaged in an uprising against his regime.
The sad reality is that the international community has abandoned the Syrians. Brahimi is probably right in his presumption that the war in Syria will claim an additional 100,000 lives this year if a political solution is not adopted.
The humanitarian side of the conflict was underlined last week when a snow blizzard hit the region making the lives of over two million homeless inside Syria and over half a million refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon a hellish experience. International aid agencies complain that the regime is not allowing food and medical supplies to reach stricken villages and neighborhoods inside Syria.
In the absence of a political deal humanitarian conditions will continue to deteriorate. There are a number of developments to watch in the coming few weeks. First, it is now clear that Washington will accept a deal that leaves most of the regime, including the army, intact. The quarrel with Russia is over Assad’s role. Second, the West and other backers appear to have limited the flow of weapons to the fighters, fearing that the militants are getting stronger and that they will be the main party to talk too in the end. Third, there are signs that various opposition groups are now fighting among themselves over control of “liberated” areas. Confrontations may also occur as the coordinating committees and the National Coalition try to transfer responsibility for these areas from the fighters to a civilian body. This move is backed by the United States as a step to create a transitional government on the ground. And fourth, the west, and Israel, will keep a close watch of Syria’s alleged chemical weapons. An outside foreign military intervention will only occur if these weapons are used by the regime or fall in fighters’ hands.
On his part President Assad, relying on Russian and Iranian support, is still looking for a major victory on the ground. His forces have almost full control of Homs and are fighting to repulse opposition attacks on Aleppo. But his biggest worry is the fight taking place near the capital, Damascus, where the fighters have control of most of the countryside. Assad still has the upper hand in the air where he is inflicting punishing blows against the fighters and hapless civilians.
Neither party will be able to change the balance of power in the coming few weeks. But internal challenges in both camps may signal a major shift. One thing is for sure and that is Assad’s grip on power remains strong and a clear-cut result in Syria is many months away. As one foreign observer concluded in The Guardian recently: “The aim now is not to liberate Syria but to isolate it and quarantine it and to contain the contagion.”