04/19/2013 03:46 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2013

"Strategic Concern" in Syria Has Ended, but the "Season of Surprises" Continues

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made it perfectly clear what he has in mind in an interview with Syrian News Channel Al-Ikhbariya this week. He said that the period of "strategic concern" has ended, and declared, "We have no choice but victory; if we don't win, Syria will be finished". This is how Assad summed up who he is and what he intends to do. In the meantime, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad was asserting that "if President Assad steps down, Syria will no longer be on the map," therefore linking the fate of the country to the fate of one man. Russia, for its part, seems to be reassuring Assad that there is no need for strategic concern, because it is his ally and will continue to reject his departure and provide him with the weapons he needs, as long as he is fighting al-Qaeda in Syria to keep away its terrorists and its attacks from Russia and Chechnya. Furthermore, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov seems to be using Syria as leverage in the strategic equation between the United States and Russia. There is no need for "strategic concern" that would require Damascus to change the balance of power, after Moscow reassured its ally Assad that it too was making the future of the country contingent on the future of the man. They have both decided to use, in the face of Washington and European capitals, the threat of al-Qaeda, to spread terror among their ranks and their people. They have also resolved to link any support for the Syrian opposition to al-Qaeda, warning against the Afghanization of Syria and the repercussions this would have on the West, for example with terrorist attacks similar to 9/11. This militant position has materialized on the eve of the Friends of Syria conference in Istanbul, which will be attended by ministers and representatives from 11 countries. Lavrov has claimed that this gathering is playing a "negative" role in the Syrian conflict, asserting that "if the priority is placed on regime change [and on President Assad leaving power], the price will be [the loss of] innocent people's lives."

This is how Russian diplomacy spurs the Syrian leadership to insist on "victory," while Moscow claims to want "dialogue" over transition in Syria, as per the text of the Geneva agreement which it had consented to. It seems that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lavrov are determined to keep al-Qaeda and similar radical Islamic groups away from Russia's cities and the five Muslim republics neighboring it at any cost, even if Syria were to be "finished" if the Assad regime fails to achieve "victory." Putin has taken a page from former US President George W. Bush's rulebook in Iraq, in his war against al-Qaeda-style groups. Indeed, they both used Arab cities to keep away terrorism from Russian and American cities, and they both gave a different label to their wars in Iraq and in Syria, than their true purposes. Bush said frankly and publicly that the war in Iraq was meant to keep terrorism away from American cities. Lavrov says it behind closed door, and becomes quite frank about it when he grows angry and violent, making it clear that the war in Syria is for the sake of Russia. It is Moscow's battle to quell the "strategic concern" of the Syrian leadership and achieve "victory" for the regime at the expense of the country. This is exactly how Moscow in the past misled toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during his famous period of defiance. "The rest is history", as they say.

Moscow is taking revenge in Syria for its setbacks in Iraq. It is being defiant also in response to what it considers to have an affront against it, when the countries of the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) and those of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allied on the issue of Libya. Putin has decided to take revenge for Russia's national pride and establish an alliance of defiance that would include Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, and would be supported by China in varying degrees in view of the Russian-Chinese alliance which directs the two countries' relations and strategic interests.

Today, Putin seeks strategic revenge and military victory in Syria. This is why he continues to support the regime militarily, demands that others not provide the opposition with such support, and wagers on US President Barack Obama's doctrine of not intervening militarily anywhere. This is Moscow's war in Syria. Moral responsibility demands that Moscow, and with it Washington, G8 nations, the GCC, Iran, and all those concerned with the war in Syria, or the battle for Syria, to take the issue of the refugees in neighboring countries and those displaced internally in Syria seriously. Millions of Syrians have been displaced, have migrated, or have become refugees in neighboring countries that are unable to cope with this massive influx of refugees. Morally, all players bear a certain amount of responsibility, regardless of whether they support the Syrian regime or oppose it. It is time to stop hiding behind one's finger and pretend that this will soon pass and that people will return to their homes safe and sound. To be sure, their homes have been destroyed, and the battle is ongoing until "victory" is achieved, as Assad asserted. There are no indications on the horizon - at least today - of international understandings being reached on political solutions that would require, as a self-evident matter, negating the logic of "victory."

The UN Security Council should draw a distinction between, on the one hand, its political powerlessness and the quarrels of its members over the interpretation of the Geneva agreement, and, on the other, what it must do with regard to Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. For one thing, the influx of refugees to these countries, where they will be forced to remain for a long period of time, represents a threat in economic, security-related, political, and social terms for these countries. Lebanon and Jordan want the Security Council to participate in bearing such responsibility, because it really does threaten peace and security, and because these two countries are incapable of bearing such a burden on their own, as the infrastructures of both are under risk of collapsing. Lebanon in particular needs the international community to rush to its assistance through the Security Council, specialized UN agencies, the European Union, and the countries of the GCC, in order to shore up its ability to care for the refugees. Indeed, Lebanon will not be able to adapt to the arrival of over a million Syrians on its soil, with the number of refugees to it rising daily as battles spread in Syria.

Sharing the burden is no mere slogan, but rather a dire need. The Europeans flee forward when ideas are put forth that call for other countries to host these refugees until they can return home. They claim that this might not be the wish of the refugees. Ask them. Of course, they did not choose to leave their country and did not choose to migrate to Lebanon to remain there. Ask them if they would all prefer to remain in Lebanon for five or ten years while their homes are being rebuilt, under such circumstances as a collapsed Lebanese infrastructure and increased insecurity. This is an excuse to evade sharing the burden and temporarily hosting Syrian refugees in European countries. There is a need to cease fleeing forward, for European countries as well as for Arab countries, which pretext the unwillingness of the refugees to go to them instead of remaining in Lebanon.

Lebanese authorities have also fallen short, in view of everyone being busy with forming a government and drafting an electoral law. Doubtlessly, they should also give the matter priority and set up procedures to reassure donors that funds are being used for their true purpose. Indeed, donors pretext the lack of clarity of priorities and procedures, and it is time to pull the rug from under the feet of such excuses. It is unacceptable for donor-countries to stand idly by and watch, or to make promises and fail to keep them, while Lebanon stands on the verge of economic collapse, especially if Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam proves unable to form a government soon or if the battle over the electoral law remains within the bounds of political outbidding. The issue of the refugees requires wisdom from everyone, or else it would threaten both their fate and the fate of the countries hosting them alike.

There are signs of international agreement over containing Lebanon's descent towards an eruption, which took shape in the consensus over Tammam Salam as Prime Minister. Such consensus is still in its infancy and requires intensive care. The return of Saudi Arabia's role in Lebanon to sponsor this consensus might be a unilateral move, yet there are indications that it did not take place without regional and international understandings having been reached. Nevertheless, the true test of such understandings, especially with Iran, will reside in the final stances the latter's allies will take on the government and the electoral law. Indeed, if the climate of consensus is not maintained, then a climate of confrontation will follow, as the battle over Lebanon is also a regional one par excellence.

Some have interpreted the positive attitude of the March 8 Alliance, which includes Hezbollah and Michel Aoun's movement, as evidence of its members having reached the conclusion that the structural weakness of the Syrian regime now warns that its end is near. Moreover, information provided by certain parties in the Syrian opposition indicates that Israel too is now entirely ready to withdraw any cover of protection for the regime in Damascus, after having reached the conclusion that its military victory was out of the question. Israel would never want al-Qaeda and similar groups to achieve victory, but considers that the mutual exhaustion of Sunnis and Shiites in Syria serves it and serves its interests. It would never want a military victory either for Iran in Syria, or for al-Qaeda in Syria. Israel considers Syria as tantamount to a"Vietnam" for both warring sides, and may also well be Hezbollah's "Vietnam" if it were to get further implicated in the fighting. Israel wishes for Hezbollah to get even more implicated militarily inside Syria, so as to exhaust it, and so as for it to become fragmented from within and to itself undermine its own logic of keeping its weapons for the sake of resistance. The period of "strategic concern" may well have ended in the mind of the Syrian president, but it is very much present in the minds of his allies in Tehran and in Lebanon.

As for "victory", it would require the regime to continue engaging in air raids and missile strikes against its own cities and villages, under the slogan of combating terrorism, and perhaps even to resort to a major escalation which some fear could lead to the use of chemical weapons. But Russia refuses to give the green light to such a major development, which would reverse the military equation and lead to a Western military intervention feared by Moscow.

The battle to "victory" or to the "finish" would require a major influx of weapons and funds to a country where no agricultural crop will be harvested this season and whose currency is now in a state of collapse. Both sides of the conflict will find themselves faced with bankruptcy in the formula of "victory," because the funders of this "victory" themselves may not be able to bear its exorbitant cost.

Thus the season of surprises has not yet ended.