Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, Al Hayat
New York – The tug-of-war has taken a dangerous turn after Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad opted clearly for a decisive military approach pledging to continue pursuing the demonstrators whom he deemed to be “terrorists.” The economic and political isolation will henceforth figure more and more in the discourse of demands that Assad step down, soon to come out of Washington, as well as European and Arab capitals, and perhaps even Turkey as well. Besieging the regime in Damascus will not stop at the irreversible sequestration and abandonment of the regime, but shall also include preparatory measures for the prosecution of its leaders for committing crimes against civilians. This will inevitably lead to two possible scenarios: One, Damascus admits that it has no choice but to quickly strike a deal and make radical concessions to preempt prosecutions and demands for the regime to hand over power. Or two, it may lead to both an escalation in the crackdown against the protesters and to the regime playing the Lebanese card by which Syria would instigate a war with Israel through Hezbollah in order to turn the tables against its opponents. But such a decision would not be purely Syrian but rather fundamentally Iranian as Tehran considers such option, with an eye on Ankara. That is because Turkey plays today an essential role in shaping Syria’s fate, in coordination with major Arab countries, as well as with Washington and European members of NATO, of which Turkey is also a member. There is increased talk of military pressure to come through arming members of the opposition to the Syrian regime — should it persist in its obstinacy and bloody repression — could lead to rebellion and a split within the Syrian army. While NATO will not engage in airstrikes against the regime in Damascus — on par with its operations in Libya — the alliance may provide financial support and armaments to the dissidents through Turkey in support of ground operations, not air strikes, should the regime continue with its military approach. The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) may also follow suit. Last week, the GCC countries said they were running out of patience with the Syrian regime and began a wider effort in close collaboration with Turkey. This has made Iran increasingly concerned, perhaps even irate as well — something which everyone is now closely observing to see how it shall be translated on the ground in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq as well.
It is unlikely that the Security Council will grant powers or provide cover for establishing an international or regional force to be deployed in Syria to halt back the regime’s violations. Russia and China continue to be on the side of the wider BRICs camp, which also comprises India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA), and which opposes any military operations. True, the language and the tone of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with Damascus have been increasingly stern. However, this has not reached the extent of allowing military action; at least not for the time being. Russia and its allies at the Security Council are still wagering on convincing Bashar al-Assad to withdraw the army to its barracks and move forward with serious reform that would save both himself and his regime. This is why they have made sure to equally criticize the other side- i.e. the protesters — in an effort to place the regime and those who oppose it on equal footing, in terms of blame and responsibility. Nevertheless, Bashar Al-Assad must have, no doubt, been shocked and surprised by the consensus among all Security Council members over the Presidential Statement issued ten days ago (from which Lebanon disassociated itself). That statement carried condemnation of the Syrian authorities and allowed the Syrian issue to be ever present on the Security Council’s agenda.
Perhaps Assad had been certain that Russia would obstruct such a stance at the Security Council, as much as he had been certain of a Russian veto, as he watched the vote at the Security Council over the establishment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The surprise back then was that Russia abstained from the vote, allowing the STL to see the light and come into being. In other words, what international policies and bilateral relations among states dictate is not always a constant to be taken for granted. Instead, the facts on the ground in Syria (and in Libya and Yemen before), and with it the human rights organizations observing the stances taken by governments and hold these to account, now have a direct impact on the policies being drafted across the world’s capitals. Subsequently, what Russia and its allies oppose today, they may approve tomorrow, should the bloody repression continue and should we witness increased cooperation in the coalition consisting of the GCC, Turkey, the United States and Europe; cooperation in terms of resolve to stop the Syrian regime from committing further violations as it presses ahead with its military approach to the crisis.
Bashar al-Assad may read into the positions of the various countries and decide that he has no choice but to desist from the military solution and understand that the key to his remaining in power is a mix of bargains and concessions, both at the local and regional levels. In that case, he may well play the Palestinian card, relinquish the Iranian card, and restore confidence in a truce-like relationship with Israel. By virtue of such a relationship, Asad had safeguarded calm at the Syrian-Israeli border, in return for which he received Israeli assurance and some sort of protection for his regime. But then he may decide on the opposite, believing that military escalation within Syria and beyond would be the key to his remaining in power. In this case, he would play the Lebanese card through Hezbollah to provoke an Arab-Israeli war; inflame sectarian conflict, especially between Sunnis and Shiites; play the card of minorities and sects; and take Iran as a strategic ally “extraordinaire” to challenge the strategic alliance between the Arab Gulf States and Turkey, with Europe and the United States along. In other words, there is the choice of peace through reform and preemption to save the regime; and there is the choice of war through imposing new facts on the ground — facts that would turn the tables, buy some time and perhaps save the regime.
If the choice falls on offering concessions and reconsidering the military approach, this may help Turkey draft a roadmap whereby it becomes the architect of political and economic reforms, through radical and serious concessions made by Bashar al-Assad — not merely cosmetic ones. This is at the local level. At the regional and international levels, Bashar al-Assad would have to offer guarantees to stop playing the Palestinian card, i.e. stop using Palestinian armed factions to obstruct Palestinian decision-making that should be the purview of the Palestinian Authority alone. In other words, he must dismantle the military structure of those armed Palestinian factions which are based in Syria and which operate in Lebanon under Syrian dictates. Moreover, he will have to sever his alliance with Iran, as well as sever the Iran-Hezbollah trail that carries military supplies and other things. Part of correcting the aberration in Syria’s situation — before the uprising against the regime — is to stop the deracination of Syria from the Arab belly to be offered an ally of Iran and used as an Iranian card against the Gulf — all for the purpose of extortion, in order to ensure the survival of the regime.
If, on the other hand, the choice falls on military escalation as the path to remaining in power, then the first episode of escalation would probably take place in Lebanon. Such a decision certainly requires a joint Syrian-Iranian green light, because it would have tremendous consequences, despite its tempting appearance. The problem faced by Syria and Iran here lies partly in the fact that Hezbollah is in power in Lebanon at present, and does not have the freedom of “resistance” and a by extension, a free reign to start a war “whether the Lebanese like it or not.” This, according to a veteran of Arab politics, is “part of the problem” for Syria and Iran, because Hezbollah today is both a “resistance” and a “regime” in Lebanon. This compels the Party of God to take political stances that are not always in favor of Syria or Iran, “unfortunately so for Assad”.
The decision may fall on the Lebanese card through Hezbollah in terms of escalating the “threats” and not escalation “on the ground.” But the decision could instead be in favor of a wider explosion through an Arab-Israeli war that would divert attention away from the Syrian uprising, shackle Arab governments and paralyze the GCC-Turkish alliance and its plans. The strategy of escalation may succeed in buying the regime in Syria a certain amount of time, with the destruction of Lebanon as a price. But this will not prevent a ground-based intervention through Turkey. If military escalation is the choice Syria shall make, then there are parallel plans ready to thwart such a strategy, even if the latter succeeds in buying some breathing space for the regime. Part of this strategy is based on confounding the forces of the Syrian army and provoking a split within its ranks, with a view to bring about a similar outcome to that seen Egypt and Tunisia, i.e. a partnership between the army and the people to topple the ruling family. Here too, Turkey would be a major architect in this respect, in clear coordination with NATO and GCC countries.
Iran is confused and it doesn’t have many options. Tehran might decide that saving the Syrian regime is an absolute priority and approve playing the Lebanese card through Hezbollah. It may also see in the GCC-Turkish alliance a Sunni axis opposed to it, being the country that has led a Shiite axis in Iraq and in Lebanon and made clear its ambitions to export its revolution and dominate the region. Its decision might then be to confront with a strategy of preemption instead of submitting to a new regional order that would not be in its favor. Yet such escalation by a decision from Tehran will not pass without a tremendous price being paid at the international level. There is a kind of a fragile international silence towards Iran, just as there is a kind of silent mobilization among the Iranian people against their regime. This is why the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran might consider that it would be better off to manage its own silence and not escalate. Escalation would surely clear the way locally and internationally for both an influx of international pressure and an “Iranian Spring” simultaneously.
The tug-of-war phase has entered the danger zone then, not only as a result of the military approach which Damascus has so far clung to bleeding the Syrian people, but also in light of the broader choices the regime might resort to in both Damascus and Tehran.
The countdown has begun in parallel with the discourse calling for Bashar al-Assad to step down and for the prosecution of those responsible for the war crimes being committed in Syria. Such a discourse might lead the Syrian leadership to ultimately regain its senses, or on the contrary, it might arouse in it a sense of vindictiveness and revenge. Nevertheless, the wall of silence has been broken, and it is no longer possible for the Syrian regime to hide in its shadow.