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Alon Ben-Meir

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The Syrian Crisis: Pitting Russia Against the U.S.

Posted: 07/30/2012 3:44 pm

The latest UN resolution sponsored by Western powers (the United States, England and France) designed to increase the pressure on Assad and force him to step down was once again rejected by Russia and China, making it abundantly clear that all diplomatic efforts have come to a dead end. If Russia, the main proponent of the Assad regime (and the country that vetoed three consecutive UN resolutions to force Assad's hand) still believes that Assad can survive and will support him to the bitter end, Moscow is making a colossal mistake. Conversely, if the United States continues to issue one toothless condemnation after another and seeks cover under hollow political plans to oust Assad, it will end up in no better position than Russia. The truth is that neither Russia nor the United State believes that the Assad regime can survive. Thus, they must now agree on a way to find a solution that rests on coercive diplomacy acceptable to both while preserving their interests.

Indeed, there are many irrefutable facts that strongly suggest that Assad is doomed. The ongoing violence is escalating and gradually tipping the scales in favor of the rebels. The remarkable success of the Syrian rebels who killed four top officials in charge of executing Assad's brutal crackdown has dramatically increased the level of uncertainty and demoralized many of Assad's top commanders. The number of defectors, top officials including the Syrian ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf al-Fares, and Brigadier General Manaf Tlas, has burgeoned and it is becoming increasingly more difficult for Assad to find individuals he can trust from his ever-shrinking pool of loyalists. Emboldened by their successes in attacking Assad's power base, the rebels have made great strides in their ability to organize and plan ways of inflicting ever greater casualties on his better-trained and better-equipped regular army and militia forces. Finally, the failures of all diplomatic efforts have forced Western powers, along with Turkey and the Arab League (AL), to seek alternate solutions outside the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) by funneling greater supplies and more sophisticated weaponry, communications gear, intelligence and other necessary provisions to rebel forces. Regardless of how important these measures are in aiding the rebels, they unfortunately remain insufficient to dramatically tip the balance in favor of the opposition and ensure the speedy demise of the Assad regime.

Although all of those reasons (and others) make it impossible for Assad to survive, Russia's President Putin is not so naïve as to think that the Syrian upheaval is an aberration and is likely cognizant that it is part and parcel of the Arab Spring. The uprising of Arab youth in Syria who have been witness to the demise of Egypt's Mubarak, Libya's Gaddafi, Yemen's Saleh and Tunisia's ben Ali are no longer willing to live in subjugation, humiliation and hopelessness. There is no political framework, regardless of its framers, that will succeed unless it meets their aspirations. Putin knows that regardless of how many more weapons he supplies Assad and how much longer he can delay the inevitable, in the end the Assad regime is doomed.

Concerned over his deteriorating domestic position, Putin, who is now seen as complicit to the slaughter, will seek to contain the damage sooner rather than later as the Kremlin is certainly guided by Russia's greater interests in the region. President Obama also understands that the U.S. will further lose much of its remaining credibility and influence if it continues to take cover under abortive diplomatic efforts and engage in empty rhetoric hopelessly aimed at ending the conflict (notwithstanding the reelection campaign) when hundreds of Syrians are killed daily. Indeed, the reluctance to allow for outside interference to the unfolding crisis will bring the crisis to the doorsteps of both Russia and the U.S.

It is clear that Russia will seek to protect its interests in the Middle East that transcend Syria and extend the Shiite Crescent from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, and that it views the deteriorating crisis in Damascus with alarm knowing that sticking to its current policy is self-defeating. It is also clear that the U.S. has major stakes in the region and the unfolding events in Syria could seriously undermine the U.S.' overall strategic interest. Although the U.S., by virtue of its extensive Middle East alliances, has the upper hand, Russia can still prevent the U.S. and its allies from having it their way as has clearly been demonstrated thus far.

Russia, however, also knows that without collaborating with the U.S. on the future of Syria, Moscow will have little say in shaping or influencing the eventual new political order that will emerge from the ashes of a prolonged violence and chaos replete with revenge and retribution, and from which the Islamists will benefit the most and more extremism will emerge. Therefore, the time has come for the two powers, in partnership with the Syrian National Council (SNC), the AL and Turkey, to fully collaborate in the search for an outcome that will preserve much of their respective interests while simultaneously preventing the crisis from "spinning out of control," as Secretary of Defense Panetta recently proclaimed. Indeed, neither Russia nor the U.S. (albeit both approaching the conflict from different angles) can allow the crisis to destroy the country through tens of thousands of casualties without severely undercutting their immediate and long-term interests.

It should be noted that on more than one occasion, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stated that Russia is not wedded to President Assad and would not object to a solution to end the crisis under unspecified circumstances. The prospect, if not the certainty, of a full-fledge civil war (the Red Cross has already declared the crisis as civil war), may now have created the circumstances for the U.S. and Russia to forge a strategy to force Assad out by supporting the SNC efforts toward the same objective.

As stated above, Putin knows that continuing to support Assad to the bitter end is a losing proposition and losing Syria will be a major blow to Russia's overall strategic interests in the region. If Putin can strike a deal with the U.S. and the SNC that preserves Russia's interests in Syria and negotiates with the U.S. on bilateral issues of critical importance to Russia, Putin may well be prepared to sacrifice Assad. Once Assad, through private Russian channels, is told that he is about to lose Moscow's support, he may then opt for a safe passage to another country and avoid Gaddafi's fate.

Should Assad refuse to heed to the Russian call, to save face Russia could then openly express its concerns that the crisis in Syria is indeed spinning out of control and endangering the region's stability. To that end, Russia would be prepared to sponsor a UNSC resolution on behalf of the AL under Chapter VII that authorizes the imposition of sanctions and the potential use of force should Assad refuse to relinquish power. The resolution should also authorize the supply of military equipments to stop tanks and jet fighters, provide logistical assistance to the opposition, and allow the rebels to hold on to a large swath of territory in the north and south. This will provide sanctuary for the expected massive increase of refugees and establish a staging ground for the Syrian Free Army to stage major operations against the regime. To that end, the U.S. and Russia would then help the SNC to organize and present a unified agenda that incorporates all social groups and religious sects in Syria, particularly the Kurdish, Christian, and the Alawite minorities. The collaboration of necessity between Russia and the U.S. will avoid a horrific outcome from which both countries will suffer a humiliating setback.

It is imperative that the SNC is prepared to take over the government apparatus when Assad leaves by establishing a shadow government comprised of figures that must include some of those that have recently escaped from Syria. Once the SNC presents a united front, the support it receives from the West (and Russia) should be conditional upon a longer transitional period of three to five years before elections take place. In this manner, new (secular) political parties will have a much better chance to organize and prepare comprehensive political platforms while substantially reducing the chances of the Islamists to capture power, which neither Russia, the U.S. nor the SNC wants.

In addition, the U.S. and Russia should be prepared to sponsor a second UN resolution that would authorize the establishment of a peacekeeping force ideally comprised of a minimum of 10-15,000 soldiers from Arab States. Preferably, this force should fall under the joint command of Saudi Arabia and Egypt with external advisers from the West and Russia to provide logistical and technical support. Such a force must have the mandate to take action to maintain peace if necessary in order for it to operate effectively within Syria.

Considering the multiple conflicting issues between all of the players whose interests will be affected by the outcome of the crisis in Syria, this approach may well be seen as far-fetched. But by leaving the crisis to take its own course, everyone will end up a loser and the Middle East will be plunged into a horrifyingly unpredictable future.

 

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