Sunday, May 19, 2013

Another Piece of the Syrian Puzzle

 [This writer is doubtful there can be any meaningful transition.]

Syria: Is a transitional government possible?
May 19

One important outcome of the latest meeting between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and US President Barack Obama at the White House is Turkey's consent, albeit half-hearted, to the so-called Geneva process. 
The Geneva process (a follow-up to the first Geneva meeting in 2012) refers to the American-Russian effort to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis that essentially targeted a regime change in Syria in gradual stages. 
How was Turkey convinced? Ankara realized that its allies, i.e., the anti-Syrian President Bashar al-Assad camp, are not interested in bold action. Plus, after almost two years, it has become obvious that Turkey does not have the necessary power to effect a major change in Syria. Interestingly, the pro-Assad camp is not large, but it includes active participants of the caliber of Hezbollah and Iran, and the anti-Assad front is very strong and sizeable (given that it includes the US and many European states) but its active front is composed of just a few actors like Turkey and Qatar. In reality, the anti-Assad camp consists only of Turkey and Qatar.  [Sharmine Narwani sez the same thing. JB]  The rest are part of the chorus, contributing much talk but little practical action. 
In the end, the main US "partner" in dealing with the Syrian crisis is the other big power, Russia. What US Secretary of State John Kerry said about the diplomatic solution in his latest visit to Moscow is worth quoting: “I'm not going to decide that [Assad's departure] tonight. And I'm not going to decide that in the end. Because the Geneva communiqué says that the transitional government has to be chosen by mutual consent by the parties. Who are the parties? The parties are the current regime and the opposition.” 
So, is it possible to achieve a transition in Syria through the cooperation of the regime and the opposition? 
First, it is not clear how the Assad regime would be convinced -- a regime that did not accept leaving Syria despite a bloody war. The Damascus reading of the process is different: Damascus sees the Geneva process as proof of its success. Can one convince Assad to leave the country without a major military defeat? This could only happen in one simple way: the Assad regime is given very strong guarantees. Then the regime itself may force Assad's hand, along with Russia's, for a kind of change. But the Russian role should not be misinterpreted. Many think that if Russia pushes the button, that will be enough to remove Assad. That view, however, is highly exaggerated: The Assad regime definitely needs Moscow, but the latter needs the Assad regime in Damascus just as much. 
Second, transition takes a very long time and is likely to require a geographical cantonment. Can one imagine an entrance of the Free Syrian Army into Damascus for the purpose of sharing power with the regime's military? Does that sound logical? Thus, what is called a transition is likely to end up as a certain geographical power-sharing all over Syria. Similarly, that too, would be a transition that requires a long time, for one reason or another. 
Third, is it possible to convince the opposition groups? Moscow seems to want to convince the US that its main concern should be radical groups like al-Qaeda. It is very clear that there are some opposition groups in Syria today that will certainly be against any kind of process of adaptation. Just to reiterate, even the Arab League has not transferred the Syrian seat to any member of the Syrian opposition. 
In short, even if it succeeds, a transition model, in light of what we have heard so far, is likely to generate a "mild" change in Syria that will keep the major elements of the Syrian regime in power. In practice, what is called the Russian interest in Syria, or the Iranian interest in Syria, refers to the continuity of the elements of the Assad regime in the country. With Assad or without him, a transition endorsed by Russia and Iran is not likely to produce a radical change in Syria.

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