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Dr. Josef Olmert Headshot

No Ceasefire in Syria -- So, What's Next?

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The so-called "cease-fire" in Syria is unraveling even faster than what was anticipated. It was predicted in this blog that it is what is going to happen, so no surprises here -- but for the speed with which it happened. The early hours of Friday already indicate that we are about to witness another day of blood-letting, and the Syrian authorities continue to refer to "terror" gangs, this time killing Syrian soldiers near the Israeli border. The Syrian communiqué did not even remotely insinuate any Israeli involvement.

The Syrian propaganda machine can call the rebels as it wishes, but the truth is that the gangs of defectors from the army are not strong enough to face off to the full might of the Syrian armed forces, which are still loyal to Bashar Assad, but they can and will continue to inflict a lot of damage, materially and in human cost to the regime, backed by the vast majority of the Syrian people. Throngs of Syrian civilians are in the streets of towns and villages all over the country, braving the shoot-to-kill policy of the regime. So, the overall projection regarding the regime continues to be that in this war of attrition between oppression from above and the will of the people, the latter will prevail.

When? Well this is the real question, and that is where a new approach should be taken, in order to speed up a process which will put an end to the horrors perpetrated every day.

The immediate alternative to the current mayhem is not a military intervention, a scenario advocated by some in the U.S. and by many Syrians, judging by the statements of opposition figures. This is not the alternative, not because it is morally wrong or militarily too dangerous. It is simply not going to happen in the foreseeable future, at least until November 2012, because the Obama administration does not want it to happen, and is unwilling to take any risk in an election year, a sense backed by public opinion polls. Without full-fledged American commitment, NATO or even Turkey alone, will not adopt this option. Secretaries Panetta and Clinton can use whatever rhetoric they want, but the bottom line of their statements yesterday was clear: no boots on the ground. In that case, what can be done? Both secretaries made it clear that the status quo is not acceptable, that they do not trust Bashar Assad and his promises and that his regime is doomed.

The Obama administration should be aware that its policy, while making perfect sense from an American perspective, is increasingly resented by many Muslims in the Middle East, whose hatred of the Alawite regime in Damascus is expressed so vehemently. The same applies to many Sunni Syrians, whose suffering is unbearable, and who do not understand the diplomatic and strategic subtleties which distinguish the Syrian situation from that which existed in Libya prior to the intervention there. What really distinguishes Homs from Bengazi?

As time passes, and statements are not backed by action, there is growing impatience towards American policy among many in the Middle East, and at the same time, perhaps even more significantly, a sense of derision by two important players in the unfolding drama. One is Iran; the other is Russia, whose role is very significant, bigger by far than that of Iran. Very close Russian-Syrian relations have been a constant feature of Middle Eastern politics in the last 5-6 decades. Syria is now the last remaining bastion of Russian standing in the Arab world, and Vladimir Putin, with his vision of restoring Russia's global power position, is not likely to give up long-standing investment in Syria.

For him as well, though for different reasons, Syria is not Libya. When NATO intervened there, Russia gained twice. First, they had the opportunity to castigate Western imperialism; second, and much more importantly, they sold much more oil, as Libyan production was halted, and hard currency is always important for the Russians. The Russians may be bluffing with the implicit threat to prevent by force any foreign military intervention in Syria, but in an election year in America, calling a bluff like this is risky enough.

So, here is another option to be considered. If you can't beat them, and are afraid to expose their bluff, join them. No, not joining them in defending Bashar Assad's regime; but rather in finding a creative way for the two powers to cooperate in a diplomatic solution that will go much beyond a sham ceasefire. I refer to a process of transition from the current regime to a new one, monitored and supervised by the two powers. As much as Russia wants to perpetuate Bashar Assad in power, they do not want to be seen as standing idly by when their last ally in the Middle East is thrown out. They also know that the regime is on its way out. So, from their perspective, a role in shaping up the post-Assad Syria could be seen as a great diplomatic victory, and can still salvage some of the prestige they lost in the region due to their support for the dictator in Damascus.

From an American perspective, some loss of prestige as a result of co-opting the Russians in a solution is a price worth paying if that will prove to be the end of the bloodshed in Syria. What may make this option realistic is for the U.S. and its Western allies to tighten significantly and quickly the economic sanctions on Syria, because doing so will confront the Russians with the need to increase their economic aid to Assad, something that they will have difficulties in doing, thus having another incentive to reach an agreed settlement with the U.S.

After 15 months of so much bloodshed, now may be the time to change course with regard to Syria.