Speculation is rife in Syrian Street on how and when the current situation will end. The pro-regime street of course, still in complete denial of the world that has fallen apart around it, insists on belittling it as nothing but a “crisis” claiming that thanks to Russian support, Bashar Al Assad will stay in power until his term ends in July 2014. The boiling anti-regime demonstrators, the Syrian opposition and critical day-to-day Syrians proudly refer to it as a “revolution” claiming that survival until 2014 is impossible.
Optimists in the opposition believe that the regime will fall anytime between September and December 2012.
Realists don’t abide by a specific date, but shake their head in dismay when asked for a timeframe, saying that it will take “longer than everybody expects.” Both camps argue, very rightfully, that neither the Americans nor the Russians want to see a speedy redemption of the stalemate in Syria and apart from lip service aimed at media consumption, neither side is really shaken by more than the 16,000 Syrians killed in the 15 months of violence. Damascus itself was set ablaze on July 15-16, after all, and yet both Moscow and Washington stood by and watched.
It is safe to say, however, that the international community, headed by the US, has mandated Russia to come up with something creative for Syria between now and next January, when a new president is sworn-in at the White House. They are unwilling to go any further on Syria during Election Year. Despite all assurances from world capitals, there probably will be a surgical military strike anytime after January 2013, if the status quo does not change in Damascus. By then, the Syrian Revolt would be approaching its third year and nobody knows where the death toll will stand by then. The Americans believe that if assurances are given — vis-à-vis continuation of its political, economic and military influence in Syria — Russia will not mind a situation where the regime stays, but the president goes.
The world tends to exaggerate, however, how much leverage the Russians really have on Syria and nobody understands that better than the Russians themselves, explaining why they insist on not biting off more than they can chew. Moscow after all, learned its lesson well from the Turks. At one point in time, Turkey had tremendous influence over Syria. The chemistry between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Bashar Al Assad was unmatched by any two world leaders, leading to family visits, personal friendship and serious economic and political cooperation. Yet, when the Turks thought they had enough leverage to deliver when it came to change, they were cut short abruptly by the Syrians. Their influence did not even produce a cabinet that includes real opposition figures, back in March-April 2011. At one point, the Russians will realise that the leverage they have on Damascus is as limited as the one enjoyed by the Turks back in 2011. Even if the Russians make a complete U-turn on Syria, it will remain business as usual for Syrian officials — so long as Iran stands firmly behind them.
Having said that, however, the Russians are no fools. They realise that their reputation is at stake and so is the future of Syria, if the violence is not ceased and if no transition takes place. Six months ago, they believed that they could close the Syria deal just like the GCC signed off Yemen, and Nato signed off Libya. They supported the Arab League Observers, then the Annan Plan and finally the joint League-UN Mission, but all three ended in thundering failure. Now they have signed off the recent Geneva meeting outcomes, hoping that a “Transition Body” can be set up to rule in parallel with Al Assad, for a period of one year, without going into the details on the fate of the Syrian president. Previously, the international community had set out three benchmarks for Syria: An end to violence, the beginning of a political dialogue and the start of the transition process leading to a transition. In Geneva, however, the world jumped to Point III. Meaning, an end to violence and dialogue are no longer prerequisites for a political transition. So nothing will happen in Syria if the killing does not stop.
All of these ideas are nothing but political illusions. The Syrian regime is completely disinterested in any of them, bent on fighting for survival until the curtain falls. The opposition, which has failed to unite or convince world powers of its ability to rule Syria single-handedly, wants nothing less than regime change. The FSA [Free Syrian Army] will never abide by any of these political solutions, because they will be at the expense of the army deserters and defectors. Even if particular opposition figures agree to the Geneva outcome, the demonstrators will never accept it and it is they, rather than the Syrian National Council or the Local Coordination Committee, that command Syrian Street.
Moreover, Russia will never allow a Libya-like military strike on Syria, nor will it ever tolerate Turkish military intervention or a state break-down or collapse of the Syrian Army.
Despite all that is being speculated in western media, Al Assad is nowhere close to even thinking of resigning and apart from repeating time and again that he has to go, the US has absolutely no clue on how to make that happen, nor does Kofi Annan or Serge Lavrov. On the contrary, Lavrov and Annan seemingly want him to stay.
Let us put it bluntly: Nobody has the slightest clue on what to do with Syria and paying the price for all this madness are the tough and immutable people of Syria.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and the author of Syria and the USA: Washington’s relations with Damascus from Wilson to Eisenhower (IB Tauris 2012).