08/10/2012 11:26 am ET Updated Oct 10, 2012

A Devastating Regional War Is Not Farfetched

The increase in armed extremism among the ranks of the Syrian opposition could represent an incentive for qualitatively new stances by all players and influential parties in Syria, as well as another opportunity for international and regional forces to correct mistaken courses of action and rectify the drift towards excess within the United States. The discussion has begun over the role President Barack Obama must play now to avoid regretting the help extended to Muslim extremism inside Syria and globally as a de facto situation -- through negligence and not as a deliberate policy. In China, there has been some concern about the consequences of the country's strategic alliance with Russia in Syria. This alliance has made procrastination a policy, which has led to militarizing the Syrian opposition and has allowed armed Muslim extremism to be strengthened inside Syria and globally. Russia has begun to realize, without admitting it, that its fears of Islamists rising to power have become a nightmare, after political and diplomatic efforts have failed and after it prevented itself from playing the role of sponsor of the political solution and of what would follow it in Syria after the fall of the regime. Russia has crucially contributed to feeding armed extremism after it let down the Syrian civilian opposition. Russia must therefore fear the nightmare which it has produced, and which poses a threat to it on its home soil. In turn, the Islamic Republic of Iran may also be concerned with the change that has taken place in the balance of power on the field inside Syria, and has begun to take into account regional and domestic considerations, faced with the possibility of the civil war in Syria developing into sectarian wars in the region.

Meanwhile, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, do not want Syria to turn into a platform for the al Qaeda network and similar groups, no matter how much support they provide to the armed opposition. Indeed, Riyadh has been at war with al Qaeda for quite some time. Recall that Saudi Arabia had successfully combated Islamic terrorism on its home soil. Saudi Arabia has been second to none except the U.S. when it comes to mobilizing its capabilities to combat terrorism and strike blows at al Qaeda. All these factors converge with the United States, China, Russia, Iran and the GCC countries, as well as among the countries of the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) and Turkey, and they must clear a path for an ineluctable new approach in the Syrian crisis. Such an approach requires reining in armed extremism by strengthening the forces of moderation at the expense of Islamist forces. In parallel, the various sides must work together towards a serious transitional process in Syria, on the basis of putting an end to the Baath regime; President Bashar al Assad leaving power; and beginning to make preparations for the post-conflict phase, with a vital role to be played by the United Nations.

What is happening in Syria today is indeed a proxy war to a great extent. Yet this does not negate the fact that the Syrians themselves are the ones waging this war, regardless of the number of foreign fighters who have entered it so far, for ends unrelated to the future of the Syrian people. Nonetheless, the Afghanization of Syria has today become a reality, in terms of proxy wars and of Syria turning into an arena for revenge for the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who imagines himself to be the leader of a superpower during the Cold War era. But the "Afghanization" of Syria is not the "Talibanization" of Syria -- and there is a big difference. To be sure, there are in Syria neither a Taliban nor a Mullah Omar. Syria will not be ruled by the likes of the Taliban because its people will not allow it. If Islamic extremism, which takes up terrorism as a doctrine, has entered it, then it will at the end of the day leave it stronger and spread to other places -- perhaps to Russia or in neighboring countries. In such a case, Moscow would have no one to blame but itself.

Perhaps it is these issues that thinking in Russia is revolving around, and perhaps this will lead to reconsidering and allow for rectification. The door may not be completely closed to Russia, if it were to modify its stances. Furthermore, it is perhaps not too late if several factors were to intensify, among them the stances taken by Iran, China, the GCC and the United States. The Obama administration currently adopts a policy of encouraging support for the opposition with military capabilities, after the third dual veto by Russia and China at the Security Council led to excluding the latter from the Syrian issue. The Obama administration thus replaced the policy of gaining the approval of Russia and China with a policy of working outside of the framework of the Security Council.

Today, there are many voices giving the Obama administration advice about whether it should "lead from behind", as President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Leslie Gelb, wrote in the Daily Beast, or take a leading "seat at the table", as former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Zalmay Khalilzad wrote. Zalmay Khalilzad suggested the formation of a "coalition of the relevant", which would include alongside the United States the countries of the GCC, as well as Turkey, Jordan, Britain and France. Such a coalition would have, as one of the main points on its agenda, the prevention of extremism from taking over Syria, by strengthening elements of moderation, modernity and secularism. He suggests that Obama appoint an American special envoy to ensure the stability of the transitional period in Syria, in order to avoid the chaos and revenge seen in Iraq -- known to Khalilzad, as he represented his country there during that period.

The United Nations and the League of Arab States are looking for an envoy to replace Kofi Annan, who was brought down by the Russian-Chinese veto. Annan handed in his resignation last week. The new envoy will have different tasks and different powers to negotiate with determination and resolve, not on the basis of a conviction here or a compromise there, constantly shifting the relationship. Ban Ki-moon and his team are looking for someone with the ability to take on tasks of managing the transitional period after the conflict, alongside the ability to encourage moderation and modernity. The task of the new envoy will resemble that taken on by the former Ambassador and Foreign Minister of Algeria, veteran diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The difference is that the United Nations, the United States and the Arab countries concerned do not want to "Talibanize" Syria, and are thus making preparations for a transitional roadmap from "Afghanization" to a transitional government, elections and a new constitution. What matters most is for the new envoy not to seek to become the architect of international relations, but rather focus all efforts on Syria.

The accumulation of Russian demands from the United States within the framework of its position in Europe and the Middle East has perhaps led it to lose the important assets it once held. It stands today, in effect, in a confrontation with NATO and with the GCC. China may not wish to be party to such a confrontation, regardless of how much its relationship with Russia is one of strategic alliance. Indeed, such an alliance serves the interests of both countries as long as it is restricted to the Security Council. But China does not wish to take part in a new cold war that would fail in any case, in view of the nature of the alliance and the side with which it is held, in inflaming public opinion and armed Muslim extremism. Today, as the Security Council became unconnected to the issue of Syria, China and Russia squandered their most important instrument for influencing diplomacy and the new regional order. So far, China has only been held accountable for its third veto to a small extent, because it has taken the backseat compared to Russia, and because it has not entered as a party on the field, supplying the regime in Damascus with weapons. It has tried to appear less biased towards the regime than Moscow and has clung to the principle that interfering in a country's internal affairs is unacceptable.

The fact of the matter is that both China and Russia have used the Security Council to serve their own interests and within the formula of trade-offs between the two of them, not within the framework of the duties and responsibilities of countries that hold veto powers. Certainly, the history of the United States is rife with numerous examples of similar conduct, but this does not spare one of responsibility, nor of being held to account. One of the justifications for the stance taken by China -- as well as Russia -- is the fear that the rise of Islamists to power after the "Arab Awakening" would reflect on Muslim minorities inside China and on the five Muslim republics that surround Russia, alongside Chechnya. Yet the stances taken by both countries at the Security Council have crucially contributed to strengthening Islamic extremism, and have led to cold and lukewarm relations with the countries of the GCC -- oil-rich countries with strategic locations.

Correcting one's course is possible now through a bargain with the West and the Arabs, based on supporting moderation and heading off armed extremism. But once again, this is only possible through peaceful change in Damascus and starting a process of political transition from the current regime to a new one. China may wish for this in view of the situation on the field and within the framework of the regional and international balance of power. It is time for China to make a qualitative move on the chessboard, not by breaking off its strategic alliance with Russia, but rather by making use of its influence with Vladimir Putin to modify his stances, as well as by taking a determined stance with the regime in Damascus. This would require of China, as well as Russia, to uproot their fear of the contagion of the "Arab Awakening" reaching their home soil -- and this is no simple matter, unless they reach the conclusion that the contagion of Islamic extremism reaching their neighborhood represents an even worse outcome.

The Islamic Republic of Iran may also consider that it is in its best interests to reconsider its policies and its actions in Syria. Perhaps it too will reach the conclusion that hysteria is not a sensible policy and that the Iranian tradition is caution and wisdom. Perhaps it will decide that it would be better to block the path of Sunni extremism collectively through regional understandings with major powers in the Arab region, by which Tehran would put a stop to its policy of regional hegemony, remove itself from between the teeth of the siege and the isolating sanctions imposed on it, and take its natural place in the region in accordance with its size and its standing within its borders. There are encouraging indications of this, but they only represent a small step that has not yet dispelled doubts. Anything else will lead to multiple wars in the region that would reach beyond Syria. Lebanon is exposed to the possibility of a military operation on Lebanese soil carried out by Israel to do away with Hezbollah's infrastructure, if a war between the latter and Israel were to erupt. Tehran may not consider this to be in its best interests, and some implicit messages indicate a certain willingness to reconsider.

If on the other hand Tehran were to persist in its policies, as is the case with Russia, China and the regime in Damascus, then getting dragged into a destructive regional war is no unlikely matter. Today, there still looms on the horizon the hope of rectification, even if the time is at the eleventh hour, and before it is too late.