The Dilemma in Syria From Annan to Brahimi: Security Solution Comes First

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Syria youths react following an airstrike by Syrian government forces in Maaret al-Numaan on 18 October 2012. (Photo: AFP - Bulent Kilic)

By: Nicolas Nassif

Published Thursday, October 18, 2012

Following Lakhdar Brahimi’s discussions with Lebanese officials, it seems fair to conclude that the crisis in Syria is going round in circles – as it was under Annan. There does not appear to be more room for a political solution or any great hope for a ceasefire. The stage is set only for military and security action.

UN/Arab envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s visit to Beirut [on October 17], which only lasted a few hours, did not surprise Lebanese officials. What did surprise them was that he seemed to have nothing up his sleeve. The veteran diplomat came to Lebanon to explore points of view and to discuss his hope of achieving a ceasefire by Eid al-Adha [October 26]. However, he did not have specific ideas or even a preliminary vision for settling the crisis in Syria. He told Lebanese officials that he was interested in achieving one goal – persuading President Bashar al-Assad to announce a ceasefire in time for the Adha holidays.

Brahimi’s predecessor, Kofi Annan, never visited Lebanon when he was acting as UN envoy between February and August 2012, even though just like Iraq, Turkey and Jordan, it has shared borders with Syria. Annan even managed to visit Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran. It was as if Lebanon had nothing to do with what was going on in Syria.

It appears that the only positive outcome of Brahimi’s visit is that the Lebanese officials were able to relay the official position on the crisis in Syria, particularly on the two vital issues of imposing buffer zones and the smuggling of weapons and fighters. After his visit, it was not difficult to draw the same solitary conclusion as those officials, that Brahimi was treading water waiting for something to happen, but no one has any idea what that might be.

In attempting to put a halt to the violence in Syria and establish a dialogue between the Assad regime and the opposition, it is clear that Brahimi is facing the same test as his predecessor, which the latter failed. Both Annan and Brahimi concur that there can be no political solution without Assad and that a transfer of power is inevitable once dialogue is established between the Syrian sides. In this way, their aims are similar and this is why they have both publicly received the unconditional support of the UN Security Council. But there does not seem to be any indication that Brahimi will achieve what Annan could not in the lead up to his resignation on August 2, because the Security Council is divided on more than one issue in this crisis: Assad remaining in power, managing the transitional period and the identity of the opposition.

Brahimi inherited Annan’s plan, including its six clauses, and the Geneva Agreement, which the West and Russia interpret differently. Moscow was accused many times of obstructing Annan’s mission by insisting on supporting Assad’s remaining in power, while the West insisted on toppling him either through political transition or by force. Brahimi cannot have been surprised by Russia’s unwavering position, reiterated to the European Union a few days ago, that the Syrian president should remain as the head of the regime in his country. Brahimi, therefore, should have few illusions when it comes to dealing with the Syrian crisis.

Despite both the regime and the opposition declaring that they support an Adha ceasefire, it seems that reaching that stage is not a certainty. This is because since July there seems to be a prevailing belief that military gains will lead to the negotiating table and a political solution. According to sources very close to the regime, the regime has sent more than one signal, and in more than one direction, about what reactions it expects from the international community on this issue. Those were:

First, appearing to support diplomatic efforts while the opposition remains intransigent, rejecting any solution until the Syrian president and his regime are toppled. Assad agreed to the first Arab initiative, approved the mission of the Arab and then international observers and more than once showed that he was ready for internal dialogue. But he has not given up on one position that has alienated the West, which is that he is only prepared to launch reforms in collaboration with the opposition inside the country, and that he will fight the armed opposition, which he describes as terrorist groups, without mercy.

Until two months ago, the West, particularly the Americans, did not distinguish between protestors and armed men. It viewed the opposition as one body lured into taking up arms by the regime itself. Later, the West and the Americans began to hold back on supplying the opposition with weapons, fearing that they would fall into the hands of extremist groups. They were anxious and began to discuss at length the presence of al-Qaeda in Syria. In a virtually identical conclusion to that of Assad, the West and the Americans began to speak of two oppositions, one peaceful and one representing the extremist Salafi movements.

Second, the Syrian president is now confident that he will be at the heart of any political solution being worked out for his country. But the Europeans and Americans have not given up on expecting his downfall soon. They continue to issue deadlines contradicting the Geneva Agreement. This agreement is now one of the most important sources for Brahimi’s mission, just as it was for Annan, and it states that a national unity government should be set up to manage the transitional period. The West assumes that Assad will have to give up power and that authority will be transferred to a national unity government. But the Russians have declared that it is only at the end of the transitional period, depending on the outcome of the agreements reached by the Syrians, that Assad’s fate will be determined.

Thus, Assad has become an integral part of any viable settlement. First there was talk of removing him and undermining his regime, then the regime became acceptable without a president. At every turn, Assad has been the only one negotiating with the UN envoys. All other politicians faded away, entrusted with a handful of media appearances. The same applies to military officials.

Third, in view of the fragmentation and division within the opposition, Assad appears to have held himself together better: his regime has survived, defending its legitimacy despite the West denying it, secure in the knowledge that the army - viewed by the Russians as their real “colony” in Syria - is loyal. With time, delusions that cracks will appear within the army and the political regime have vanished. The most prominent dissenters, Prime Minister Riyad Hijab and General Manaf Tlas, on whom the West was relying to bring down the regime seem to be completely out of the picture. They had made promises to help spearhead a more far-reaching split inside the country. They only reason they were believed was that they were thought to hold more effective positions within the regime than they really did. It soon emerged that neither of them could undermine the army or the regime.

Lastly, the regime currently believes that the security solution is the only way to redress the situation, because it anticipates a long war. This has justified the ferocity of the military campaigns to rejoin the country, starting from Aleppo, to Homs and Hama, reaching Damascus and including the countryside around all these cities. Their solution also seeks to secure the supply lines connecting the capital to the north and to the west - all along the Syrian coast including the provinces of Tarsus and Latakia, forming the military, political and religious reservoir of the regime and so far immune to clashes. The military campaigns close to the northern and eastern borders of Lebanon were mainly aimed at “cleansing” these areas of the armed opposition, and severing the communication lines between them.

Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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