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No winners in Syria’s civil war
May 11, 2013, 12:17 pm

It is not easy being a Syria analyst.

According to General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, the Syrian conflict “posed the most complex set of issues that anyone could ever conceive, literally”.

The top general’s impression was expressed weeks before Israel’s spectacular air strike on multiple targets just north of Damascus earlier this week. With Israel’s military intervention, an exceptionally convoluted conflict has just become considerably more confusing.

Despite frequent and clear statements by influential Israelis in full support of the effort to overthrow the Syrian President, Israel’s indirect role has always been the subject of heated debate. No one wants Israel to visibly be on their side although many secretly hoped Tel Aviv’s influence would covertly work to steer American and European Syria policies to their favour.

Whatever confusion there was about the side Israel really supported, the enormous explosions that lit the Damascus skies at dawn last week provided irrefutable proof that Tel Aviv is really committed to preventing the Assad regime from emerging victorious at the end of its military confrontation with Western and Persian Gulf-backed rebels.

Opinion pieces in the media quickly reminded readers of what everyone in the Arab world already knew: Israel’s attack is meant to be seen as a pre-approved message from the international community that the Syrian regime will be prohibited by all means necessary from winning the current civil war.

It is particularly poignant to mention that none of Bashar Al-Assad’s regional and international supporters made any serious pledges of military support following Israel’s strike.

Russia, China, Iran and Hezbollah politely protested but otherwise did not vow to do anything beyond the rhetoric.

Could this be a clear indication that the regime’s days might now really be numbered?


General Ray Odierno, the US Army Chief of Staff, said he is confident the Free Syrian Army (FSA) will be victorious. “I kind of believe its not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” he recently said.

But this clarity was soon replaced by more ambiguity.

First came a totally unexpected statement by Carla del Ponte, member of the UN Human Rights Commission, that managed to almost completely halt the previous momentum of what seemed to be a determined effort by many in the US and Europe (but not by President Obama himself) to accuse the regime of using chemical weapons against its civilian population.

In an interview with a Swiss-Italian television station, Carla del Ponte reportedly said: “…There are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated. This was used on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities.”

There were calls by Assad’s opponents to fire Carla del Ponte, while regime supporters were full of smiles as they shared her interview on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. President Obama’s spokespeople now had to explain how the US would act after the apparent crossing of the President’s Chemical weapons “red line” by the Syrian rebels – their allies in the conflict.

Then came the joint news conference by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Anyone who expected a confrontation or a resignation to the fact that “there is not much anyone can do about Syria” was surprised to see the two top officials appearing friendly, optimistic and united in their intention to support unconditional national dialogue by holding a conference on the conflict as early as late May.

So how likely is it that this apparent Russo-American agreement will bring convergence on how to resolve the Syrian conflict?

Too many obstacles

Have Russia and the US really reached a solution for ending the Syrian conflict through dialogue? [AP]

Have Russia and the US really reached a solution for ending the Syrian conflict through dialogue? [AP]

First, there are too many internal players. The regime might still be generally united under the leadership of President Assad and the top commanders of the Syrian army, but the opposition is anything but united.

Efforts to “unite the opposition” will probably continue to be a waste of time or could lead to a short-lived artificial show of unity at best.

The opposition in Syria includes the Islamists and the communists, the urbanites and the rural, the honest and the corrupt, the constructive and the self-promoters, the ones inside Syria and the outside opposition, the ones representing Qatar and the others representing Saudi interests, the Syrian nationalists and the Kurdish separatists, young online activists and old former political prisoners; what – beyond the unrealistic or costly goal of toppling the regime – could possibly unite them?

There are also too many regional players. Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Iraq, Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Future Movement.

Many have developed high expectations of potential gains in the new Syria they expect to emerge at the end of the conflict. Russia and the US will need to convince them to leave Syria alone because the cake is not large enough to feed them all.

Adding to the complexity of the large number of regional players who are deeply involved in the Syria crisis, one hears of sharp difference of opinion between many of these countries on how they should react to the situation in Syria. Jordan is worried that an Islamist victory in Syria could spill over into their country and that the Hashemite King would be next to be toppled.

Yet, US pressure plus Persian Gulf incentives reportedly convinced the king to host CIA training centres for thousands of fresh new rebels.

Saudi Arabia’s leaders are worried about the momentum of change that the Arab Spring has taken – they fear the calls for democracy and liberalism – but on the other hand some of the Islamist princes are furious and want the Syrian regime defeated at any cost or risk to their kingdom.

The Emir of Qatar is lusting for victory in Syria and so is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but the latter has to deal with opinion polls showing that the vast majority of the Turkish people are not pleased with his Syria intervention, the way he destroyed Turkey’s regional relations and exposed their country to unnecessary risks to its ethnic and sectarian coexistence.

Ironically, reducing complexities on the ground requires that they be acknowledged first.

Russia has already adopted the narrative that says neither side can win by force, neither side is always right and moral, and that neither side enjoys the backing of a large majority of the Syrian people.

The challenge is for the Obama administration to learn to speak in the same language. American international politics are almost always supported by moral clarity foundations. Although President Obama’s tone has always been significantly different from his predecessor’s Iraq intervention rhetoric, his administration is still unable to stray too far from the standard template of US foreign policy.

This policy’s prerequisites are that the US is on the right side of history, is supporting the Syrian people’s struggle for freedom and democracy, is defending them from the criminal regime, and is certain of near victory (the regime’s days are numbered).

This tremendous diversity of views and interests can be dealt with through the adoption of a decisive and clear communication strategy by the US and Russia.

All the Syrian and regional players will need to be told that none of them has clean hands, that none of them represents a clear majority of the Syrian people, and that none of them is about to enjoy rewards of victory out of the Syrian crisis.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.