Bidding and tradeoffs have entered a heated phase over the recent period through two parallel tracks: one based on an international and regional understanding over an organized transitional process in Syria, by virtue of which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would step down from power willingly, in a manner similar to the Yemeni model; and another that has two features, an economic one based on tightening the siege economically, on the regime in Damascus through a Security Council resolution if possible, and a military aspect by establishing a coalition of European and Arab countries with some kind of participation from the United States, and which would allow for waging limited airstrikes and imposing a no-fly zone if this becomes necessary.
Both tracks are moving together across continents in bilateral and multilateral meetings at the highest levels. New to the two tracks this week is the fact that Russia has publicly expressed that it is not clinging to Assad remaining in power, while the United States has publicly stated that it was examining all options and is therefore no longer in a state of diffidence.
U.S. President Barack Obama is engulfed, as is only natural, in the coming presidential elections in November, and the U.S. Administration has informed most of those concerned in the Arab region, the Middle East and Europe that it wants a "time out" or a "pause" in the aspect concerning measures to be taken on the ground for a military solution until after this date -- in terms of taking such measures, not in terms of preparing to take them. Thus, a number of Arab and European countries are making the necessary preparations for a military option, in case of the failure of the political solution at the hands of joint United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, or at the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin. France, Britain and Eastern European countries are a part of this group, which includes Arab Gulf countries, led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as Turkey.
Jordan is not at the forefront of the military option, in view of the fragile economic and political situation that would result from an influx of Syrian refugees towards it. It is thus not part of the first circle of military preparations through its borders to Syria. Lebanon falls outside of such preparations, due to its particular circumstances and its divisions towards the Syrian issue. Iraq is going through a phase that is noteworthy, especially in terms of the Maliki government being subjected to a vote of confidence, and what this could entail in terms of redefining the relationship between Iraq and Iran in light of domestic and regional developments. What is required of the Iraqi-Syrian border falls under keeping it in check, rather than establishing safe corridors or no-fly zones. As for serious work within the military framework, this will be taking place through the gateway of Turkey.
Turkey, for its part, is engulfed in working on the two tracks, with an eye on the other players, starting with the United States and Russia, through the major Arab Gulf countries as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran, and reaching up to the Syrian opposition. Furthermore, the Turkish government is taking into account public opinion in Turkey, and the extent to which it is prepared for direct military intervention in Syria. Turkey is therefore a direct party to work on both tracks, and the discussion between the United States and Turkey is taking place on several formulas and scenarios, so as to ensure for Ankara that Turkey would not be implicated individually, and to guarantee a certain formula with the blessing or the participation of the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO), of which Ankara is a member. On the other hand, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is engaged in negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the details of the transitional political process in Damascus, starting with: When will Assad step down? What will happen from now until he does? Who will ensure his safe exit? And who will ensure the credibility of such an exit?
Putin wants to be the sponsor of the political solution, and no one objects to this, but the true test lies in the implementation and the devil is in the details. Russia wants a transitional process under its control in Syria, one that would be kept in check with regional players in terms of the details, while an understanding over it is being reached in terms of its main headlines through a "Grand Bargain" with the United States. Indeed, Russia, which does not trust the United States and considers the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to be a party biased against the regime in Damascus, realizes that Iran is not in a position that would allow it to take part in the transitional political process in Syria, because it considers the removal of the regime in Damascus to represent a near-lethal blow to a major base for its strategy in the Middle East. For all of these reasons, the discussion is taking place between Putin and Erdoğan over the details of the transitional process. Erdoğan in turn is empowered by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and is coordinating with Qatar's Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jassim in this respect.
The details Erdoğan is bringing to the table include the following: setting a clear date for Bashar al-Assad to step down before the fall; forming a transitional government while a military council would take charge of managing security and working towards stability; setting a date for presidential elections before June 2013; and guaranteeing credible means for Assad's exit.
While Putin is negotiating dates and details, Assad is resisting, and he is still putting forward a political process based on reforming the regime (not on replacing it) and on dialogue with the opposition with the president remaining in power. This is why he wants the elections to be held in 2014, pursuant to a process that has become unacceptable, even for Russia. The U.S. Administration, for its part, has informed the Russian government that it is prepared to engage with it in finding peaceful means to carry out the transitional process, on the condition of making it clear to Damascus that the time for reforming the regime has passed, and that there is no escaping a serious transitional process in Syria.
There are several reasons behind the new Russian stance based on the "Yemeni solution," among them the fact that Putin cannot tie his name and the name of his country to a regime accused of committing massacres in a systematic way, no matter how much Moscow wishes for the regime to remain. Moreover, the development of the situation on the ground in Syria, as well as the start of the countdown to the U.S. presidential elections, places Russia at the forefront of those who can come up with solutions, instead of remaining among those who merely obstruct them. Putin has decided to be at the forefront of preventing the collapse of the state in Syria, and has started a strategy based on the West's willingness to once again accept the priority of stability over that of democracy. Thus, Putin insists in his talks with Erdoğan and others on the necessity of clearly defining the alternative parties coming to power in Damascus. Putin will not accept for the Muslim Brotherhood to seize power, even through a democratic process or a military coup. In such a stance, he finds support from a large part of the Syrian population, including from within the opposition. And this point remains one of the most sensitive issues in talks over the transitional process in Syria.
Russia wants a great deal within the framework of the "Grand Bargain" in terms of its standing in the Middle East; in terms of its political standing and influence at the Security Council, as well as in terms of its bilateral relations with the United States. Putin today is offering Obama the means of salvation in Syria, and he views it as his own salvation from delving into a quagmire that would not be to his benefit. He realizes that Obama will not be able to get implicated in Syria militarily at the moment, but that he also will not be able to ignore the massacres, especially during the electoral period.
What role do Turkey and Iran play in the transitional period in Syria? What position does each of them occupy in the "Grand Bargain"? And is Kofi Annan's role currently restricted to buying time until an understanding is reached over the "Grand Bargain" between the United States, Russia and regional parties? These are crucial questions, and the answers to them are very complicated, in view of the overlap and contradiction among both international and regional calculations. Turkey will be part of the transitional process, and it will be part of the Grand Bargain. Iran might be part of the Grand Bargain, but it will not be part of the transitional process, because that would go against its interests. Turkey's leadership has lost its trust in that of Iran, and it considers that there is no way to invest in Iran's sincerity or to trust it. It thus plays a part in the vote of no-confidence and the blow struck against the stability of the Maliki government in Iraq, with the aim of reducing Iran's influence in Iraq.
In Lebanon, on the other hand, Ankara realizes that the Syrian regime's strategy is based on exporting the Syrian crisis to Lebanon, and it believes Damascus to be exporting terrorism to Turkey and working to strengthen the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). There is talk of special forces providing Lebanon with assistance, so that it may not become an arena for diverting attention away from developments in Syria. Some of those knowledgeable about Turkish politics say that Ankara will not accept for the situation in Lebanon to deteriorate or escalate by a decision from Damascus, and that the military element will be very well prepared if matters were to develop in this direction.
Jordan, too, is afraid of instability being exported to it within a strategy of diverting attention away from Syria, and it fears that it might be absent from the minds of the regional and international players who have rushed to send a clear message about Lebanon being turned into an alternative arena for the Syrian war. Yet today, during this period in particular, talk of reaching understandings through international bargains prevails over talk of military confrontations. According to sources, work is underway to reach a deal before the start of Ramadan at the end of next month. Otherwise, the season of diplomatic, political and perhaps field confrontations will begin at the Security Council, with implementation being postponed until after the U.S. presidential elections, unless massacres are to impose an earlier date.
This week, at the World Economic Forum meeting in Istanbul, it was clear that the Syrian issue had given a different color to what had been called the Arab Spring when Arab revolutions and uprisings erupted. It was clear that Istanbul, which will be hosting on Friday a meeting of the utmost importance, attended by the foreign ministers of the United States, Russia, Europe and Arab countries, had become the city of looking into the two tracks: that of understanding and that of confrontation.
Follow Raghida Dergham on Twitter: www.twitter.com/raghidadergham