As Syria descends into the abyss of uncontrollable violence, UN-Arab League peace envoy to Syria Kofi Annan recently gave up on his efforts to mediate in a transition of power. He blamed the increasing militarisation of the Syrian deadlock and the absence of unity in the UN Security Council for making it difficult for him to effectively exercise his role as mediator.
The Chinese and the Russians have economic, political and military interests invested in Syria President Bashar Al Assad’s regime. They oppose the use of the UN to bring about regime change in Damascus. The solution, argues Moscow, must be one reached through negotiation, not through threats or coercive measures.
Western powers led by the US openly call for regime change. For that to happen, Washington needs China and Russia to stop protecting Al Assad at the UN and has urged Moscow in particular to stop supplying weapons to Al Assad’s regime.
Annan recognises the fact that his own peace plan is based on a transition of political governance under a new leadership, because, he said Al Assad “will have to leave sooner or later”.
This, in effect, means that in initially agreeing to the Annan plan, Al Assad essentially agreed to give up power and participate in managed regime change. The Syrian opposition and western powers should have strongly supported that plan. In failing to do so, they missed the opportunity for managed transition, and find themselves pursuing the far more explosive and infinitely riskier option of violent regime change.
This is unfortunate because the emerging international consensus supports diplomatic — induced, not violently wrestled — regime change. Further, it should by now have become obvious that the future of the regime will not be determined solely on the battlefield, but also by the extent to which its international support remains steadfast.
There are signs of cracks in that support. Iran, in a belated effort to save the Syrian regime organised a summit on Syria, at which the Iranians emphasised that only a political dialogue between the regime and the opposition can end the conflict. China could be persuaded to join the international consensus if it were to be assured that its varied economic interests will be protected.
There are also signs suggesting that Moscow may be amenable to thinking about post-Al Assad environment. For that to happen, Moscow’s economic, political and military interests are tied to Al Assad’s regime and a way must be found to delink them. That would naturally require that the transition to a different leadership and governance be one that is managed peacefully.
In the present landscape of violence, the environment is one of unpredictability and potential disasters in the form of widespread ethnic violence and retribution campaigns.
Although the term ‘Arab Spring’ is occasionally associated with the events unfolding in Syria, it is fair to say that demands for democratic reforms and social justice have been drowned by the louder cries of vengeance, and a menacing struggle for power among the disparate factions loosely referred to as the opposition.
If Al Assad must go because his regime has lost legitimacy, the issue of legitimacy is also relevant to the opposition. The various figures and institutions making up the Syrian opposition have not made a persuasive case that they have a genuine political programme that is democratic, inclusive and implementable.
Nor have the various groups fighting the Syrian regime made a compelling case that they are more than a disparate collection of fighters.
Remarkably, the so-called rebels being armed by various regional powers to topple Al Assad reportedly also include members of Al Qaida’s Iraq unit. “We believe that Al Qaida in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria,” James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, told a US congressional committee. Extremists, he said, have infiltrated the opposition groups. How legitimate will the demands of these extremist fighters be?
The New York Times recently revealed that American CIA officers are operating secretly from southern Turkey to help channel military supplies across the border to various opposition groups fighting the Syrian regime. In other words, while urging Moscow to stop its supplies of arms to the Syrian regime, Washington is in fact coordinating shipments of arms to the rebels.
That is not all. While continuing to refer to ideals of democratic reforms, fundamental freedoms and rule of law, Washington has in effect allied itself with groups whose democratic credentials are, to say the least, suspect: members of Al Qaida and extremist factions.
Instead of strongly supporting the diplomatic route to regime change in Syria, Washington seems to opt for the riskier strategy of regime change through covert action. Further, the Pentagon is preparing military planning of various contingencies after the fall of the regime to secure American and Israeli interests. These include securing Syria’s supplies of chemical and biological weapons.
The wrong choices made by western powers are already bringing about that which they ostensibly sought to prevent: intense military confrontation, more violence and more killing.
Russia, China and Iran can help convince Al Assad that negotiated settlement based on a political transition is in the best interest of the Syrian people.
The western powers should do the same with their proteges. Rival powers should place the interests of the Syrian people above theirs; and do it urgently.
Adel Safty is Distinguished Visiting Professor and Special Adviser to the Rector at the Siberian Academy of Public Administration, Russia. His book, Might Over Right, is endorsed by Noam Chomsky.