We can’t stop the bloodshed in Syria without talking to Assad

By: Nicholas Noe

 The Observer

With Syria rapidly descending into civil war and UN action blocked by recent Russian and Chinese vetoes, opponents of the murderousBashar al-Assad regime face a critical turning point in their almost one-year long struggle to unseat him

Unfortunately, though, in western capitals, among supportive regional states and within the Syrian opposition itself, practically the only approach to the crisis being seriously discussed revolves around one question: how best to ratchet up the pressure in order to bring about a “controlled collapse” of the whole structure

In this often simplistic approach, the underlying logic invariably rests on two core ideas. First, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah will not come to the aid of their staunch ally in the event of an impending fall. Second, any violence committed by a dying, isolated Assad regime could be reasonably contained

Both projections are, however, unlikely. The fall of Assad would deliver a huge, strategic blow to both Iran and its “junior partner”, Hezbollah. It simply does not follow, then, that these actors will simply bite their tongues and absorb the disaster for their mutual position in the Middle East

As key leaders in Tehran and Beirut have made publicly and privately clear, Assad anchors their tripartite “Resistance Axis”. As a result, both countries have only increased their support of Assad personally – even as his regime acts with more violence and irrationality

But what if this dominant view were correct and Iran and Hezbollah do notsee it in their interests to act? Even in that case, things would be unlikely to turn out as the west would like. A collapse will probably not replicate the eastern Europe experience of the late 1980s or Hosni Mubarak’s fall in Egypt. This is largely because Assad and his supporters control formidable military capabilities, which include, unlike in Iraq or Libya, chemical weapons and ballistic missile systems. Together with the sectarian support that the Alawite Assad regime will likely retain over time against an increasingly mobilised and violent Sunni majority, as well as any continuing military and elite support, the regime is fairly well positioned to prolong what many in the west have confidently projected as an “inevitable” demise wreaked by history

This slow denouement will mean an extremely violent civil war that will burn for quite some time, with vast humanitarian consequences and multiple unintended effects. But even if one believes that the regime’s end could come suddenly, at least one additional problem emerges. Facing an imminent collapse, it is very likely that Assad and his supporters would be ready, willing and able to bring the whole temple down – the Samson Option. Indeed, there are numerous ways the regime, with or without its allies in Tehran and Beirut, could provoke a massive Israeli attack, certainly given the current climate in the Jewish state auguring for war. One small, “unattributed” rocket from south Lebanon into Galilee that kills a large number of civilians would probably do the trick, as Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman recently signalled

But for Assad’s Syria, which has long viewed messianic thinking with far greater scepticism, the gamble would likely be worth it since the uncertain outcome of a climactic war in the Middle East looks much better than that to which Colonel Gaddafi and his minions were subjected in Libya

Recognising this, Assad’s opponents, especially in western countries, need to come clean and stop blaming Assad and Russia – even if both are overwhelmingly responsible – for where we are all heading. No one in the US, in Europe, in Turkey or in the region is willing to engage in the kind of massive, pre-emptive intervention that might – might – preclude the aforementioned scenarios, especially since such a move would probably entail its own disastrous consequences. As a result, the responsible course forward – both morally and strategically – is to begin seriously exploring negotiations with the Assad regime. This means first dispensing with the idea that Assad has gone too far to bargain with. The US has, and is currently, engaged in negotiations with the Taliban, a group that has killed and terrified so many and which aided and abetted Osama bin Laden’s attacks on American civilians, officials and troops. A more extreme example is afforded by US President Richard Nixon’s opening to Mao, even though Mao was already responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of Chinese. Then, as now, a negotiated settlement represented the best way to lessen violence gradually, secure one’s own interests and slowly move the situation to a point where one’s values could begin to gain serious traction

 The corollary to this inconsistent, “beyond the pale” maxim is that the Assad regime, and now  Russia, is simply immune to deal-making, even though there are openings (and possible bluffs) that exist and that should be exploited under the circumstances

A smart first step would be to move back from the demand that Assad must go now, and aggressively engage in a joint UN-Arab League effort to manage: 1) the withdrawal of heavy weaponry and the release of political prisoners; 2) oversee a reconciliation conference outside of Syria; 3) a new constitution written by next month; 4) parliamentary elections held in the summer; and 5) presidential elections next year. Throw in a ceasefire and withdrawal by the rebels (possibly to weapons-free, safe zones in Turkey and Jordan) and this package would make it extremely difficult for Assad, and certainly Russia, to resist what would essentially be a western co-option of the position that both have themselves laid out in public. With a steady relaxation of western sanctions, as well as a public commitment by the US to restart negotiations between Israel and Syria over the occupied Golan Heights, rejection by Assad actually has the best chance of precipitating a kind of controlled explosion

Indeed, if there is any hope at all for quickening and then containing the end of this regime, it lies in strong, internal Syrian actors recognising the unmitigated irrationality of the regime, seeing that a reasonable and dignified way out has finally been offered and seizing the moment. Unlike in China, going down this road would probably mean that Syrians would not have to wait decades for their full democratic aspirations to be met

Even though the Assad regime may be able to spread great regional destruction right now, it is an incredibly weak player in the overall balance of power. This means a formidable coalition of forces controlling a process that steadily and peacefully steers Syria away from its Ba’athist domination and violence. In the end, the opponents of Assad’s Syria really may not have any other reasonable options. Which means, it is high time to start discussing negotiations, something that will be hard for many of us, especially most Syrians, to swallow

source: The Observer 12-02-2012

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