New Phase in Syria Crisis: Dealmaking Toward An Exit

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Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev (L) and Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands after a joint press conference in Ankara 12 May 2010. (Photo: AFP - Adem Altan)

By: Sharmine Narwani

Published Wednesday, March 21, 2012

In recent weeks, there has been a notable shuffle in the positions of key external players in the Syrian crisis. Momentum has quite suddenly shifted from an all-out onslaught against the Assad government to a quiet investigation of exit strategies.

The clashes between government forces and opposition militias in Baba Amr were a clear tipping point for these players – much hinged on the outcome of that battle. Today, the retreat of armed groups from the Homs neighborhood means one thing: the strategy of militarizing the conflict from within is no longer a plausible option on which to hang this geopolitical battle. Especially not in an American or French election year, when anything less than regime change in Syria will look like abject failure.

And so the external players are shifting gears – the more outspoken ones, quietly seeking alternative options. There are two de facto groups that have formed. Group A is looking for a face-saving exit from the promised escalation in Syria. It consists of the United States, European Union and Turkey. Group B, on the other hand, is heavily invested in regime-change at any cost, and includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and some elements of the French, US, British, and Libyan establishments.

Before Baba Amr, these two groups were unified in maximizing their every resource to force regime change in Syria. When the UN Security Council option was blocked by Russia and China, they coalesced around the General Assembly and ad-hoc “Friends of Syria” to build coalitions, tried unsuccessfully to bring a disparate opposition fighting force (Free Syrian Army) under central leadership, pushed to recognize the disunited Syrian National Council (SNC), and eked out weekly “events” like embassy closures and political condemnations to maintain a “perception momentum.”

But those efforts have largely come to a standstill after Baba Amr. A reliable source close to the Syrian regime said to me recently: “The regime eliminated the biggest and most difficult obstacle – Baba Amr. Elsewhere, it [eliminating armed militias] is easier and less costly at all levels. Now both political and military steps can continue.”

Dealmaking Begins in Earnest

The first clear-cut public sign of this new phase was the appointment of Kofi Annan as UN envoy to Syria. Annan is an American “concession” that will draw out this dealmaking phase between the Syrian government, opposition figures and foreign governments potentially until the May 2012 parliamentary elections.

This phase is what the Russians, Chinese, Iranians, and other BRIC countries have sought from the start: the creation of a protective bubble around Syria so that it has the time and space necessary to implement domestic reforms that will not harm its geopolitical priorities.

Dealmaking and dialogue can be seen everywhere suddenly. Annan is only a figurehead masking these multilateral efforts. Reports are coming in that the US has kept a steady dialogue with the Syrian regime throughout. Opposition religious figures – mostly Muslim Brotherhood in their day-job guises – have met with the regime in recent weeks. And prominent Syrian reformists who reject military action and are open to dialogue with the regime, are now being sought out by various European governments.

The European Union (EU) kicked things off in March in a joint foreign ministerial communique rejecting military intervention in Syria. This was swiftly followed by Kofi Annan’s strong warning against external efforts to arm the Syrian opposition, with various Americans making similar soundings in his wake.

One very prominent Syrian reformist who has remained engaged with both sides of this conflict, confided that the externally-based Syrian opposition are now “looking over each other’s shoulders – none yet dares to speak out.” The fact is, says the source, “they are getting military assistance, but nowhere near enough. They need much, much more that what they are getting, and now the countries backing this opposition are developing conflicting agendas.”

Three high-level defections from the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) were announced within days of that conversation, hinting further at the fundamental policy shifts occurring in all circles, behind the scenes.

The game has changed along Syria’s borders too. Turkey, a ferocious critic of the Assad government this past year, is reconsidering its priorities. A participant in a recent closed meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu reveals the emptiness of Turkish threats to form a “humanitarian corridor” or security zone on their Syrian border. Davutoglu, says my source, insisted in private that “Turkey will not do anything to harm Syria’s territorial integrity and unity because that will transfer the conflict into Turkish territory.”

Recent deliberations with Iran also seem to have resonated with the Turks. During Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi’s January visit to Ankara, a source tells me that an understanding was reached. The Iranian FM is said to have warned Turkish leaders that they were leveraging a lot of goodwill – painstakingly built up in the Muslim/Arab world – in return for “no clear benefit” in Syria. According to my source, the Turks were encouraged to strike a bargain to regain their regional standing – the key concession being that Assad would stay through the reform period.

A Hard Dose of Realpolitik

Although Turkey has backtracked from its belligerent public posture, there are still elements in the country that remain rigid on Syria. The same is true for the US and France. The fact that 2012 is an important election year in both countries plays a part in the strategy shuffle, but there are other pressing concerns too.

One major worry is that there aren’t a lot of arrows left in the quiver to fire at Syria. Without the UN Security Council granting legal authority to launch an offensive against Syria, there are only piecemeal efforts – and these have all been tried, if not yet exhausted: sanctions, demonstrations, arming militias, cyberwarfare, propaganda, diplomatic arm-twisting, and bribing defectors. But a whole year has passed with no major cracks in support from the regime’s key constituencies and that has caused some debate about whether this kind of tactical pressure may ultimately backfire.

In Washington in particular, alarm bells have been ringing since militant Islamists infiltrated the Syrian opposition militias, some pouring in from Iraq where they were only recently targeting American interests. The US has spent the better part of a decade focusing its national security apparatus on the threat from Al Qaeda and militant Islam. The execution of Osama Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda-related figures was meant to put a seal on this problem – at least in the sense that the organization has shriveled in size and influence.

But Syria threatens to blast open a Pandora’s Box of newly-motivated “soldiers of God.” And while sectarian anger may be the fuse, the conflagration will take place on a major geopolitical fault line in the Mideast, at a delicate time, on one of Israel’s borders – and changing winds could fan those flames right back in the direction of the United States and its allies.

That is a red line for the US military and a sizeable chunk of the Washington political establishment. There are other Americans, however, who are unable to view the Syrian crisis outside the prism of Iran and its growing regional influence. US Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, who has spent years now orchestrating the defeat of the Iran-led “Resistance Axis,” is one such player in the capital.

Feltman is part of Group B, alongside Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The battle in Syria has become an existential one for Group B. They have played too hard and revealed too much, to be able to re-assert themselves into any impartial regional role in the future – unless there is a changing of the guard in Syria.

As Group A moves toward a face-saving exit from the crisis, we are going to witness a re-telling of events in Syria. The Western “mainstream media” and major international NGOs, which have served as little more than propaganda tools for various governments seeking to escalate the Syrian crisis and vilify the Assad government, are suddenly “discovering” dangerous elements in the Syrian opposition. This scene-setting is just as deliberate as the false narratives we have witnessed from Group A since the start of the crisis.

Group B, on the other hand, remains unable to take its eye off the Syrian brass ring and may continue to employ increasingly brazen and foolhardy tactics to stimulate chaos inside the country. Syria may be Group B’s graveyard unless they are brought into these deals and promised some protection. I suspect, however, that they will instead be utilized as a valuable negotiating tool for Group A – brought into play if dealmaking is not working to their advantage.

While negotiations plod on over Syria, we can be assured that most external players have little or no consideration for actual Syrians. The regime will be focused on the long haul, which includes ridding the country of armed groups, ensuring that major roadways are free of IEDs and snipers, implementing a watered-down reform program with token opposition members to give lip service to progress, and becoming even more entrenched in the face of regional and foreign threats.

Meanwhile, the West and its regional allies will happily draw out a low-boil War of Attrition in Syria to keep the Syrian regime busy, weakened and defensive, while further seeking to cement their hold on the direction of the “Arab Spring.” They will pull levers to create flare-ups when distractions or punishments are warranted, with nary a care to the lives and livelihoods of the most disenfranchised Syrians whose blood is this conflict’s main currency.

It will never be certain if there was a revolution in Syria in 2011. The country became a geopolitical battleground less than a month after the first small protests broke out in various pockets inside Syria. And it is not over by a long stretch. Syria will continue to be the scene of conflict between two regional blocs until one side wins. This may be a new phase in Syria today where players are converging to “cut some losses,” but be assured that they are merely replenishing and repositioning their reserves for a broader regional fight.

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.


Its so pathetic and heart breaking to see a country going into the verge of total destruction and where the people are suffering at the extremes with the law and order being shackled. Its the common people who have to suffer and sacrifice for the gain of some political personals. I pray to god to have mercy on this people.

My worry is hezballah will move in like they did Lebanon. For the dutairon Sunni & Shaia are conjoining to obliterate the Jewish State. Thats the plan.Than war with Israel is all but inevitable. I'm not so sure it isn't now.This guy Assad in Syria kills Thousands of his own.

Two thumbs up !!! :)

Intrigue by foreign countries is impotent, because (a) the people of Syria have proven themselves to be smarter than all the foreign hectoring that went on this past year, and (b) the foreigners themselves now agree that Syria's internal conflict shall be resolved by the people of Syria, not by outsiders. The only thing that counts anymore is what's done in Syria by the Syrians. Sharmine pretty much says so herself. Therefore, Sharmine should move on, and treat us to an article about what's the real deal in Syria. But this is where I have my dispute with Sharmine. She says above: "The regime will be... implementing a watered-down reform program with token opposition members to give lip service to progress." Here's why she's dead wrong about that: Over the past year the regime has made serious, politically popular, and good and liberal changes to fundamental political institutions including a new Constitution, a new Political Parties Law, a new Elections Law, a new Information Media Law, a new law liberally regulating organized public protests, and the repeal of the would-be or so-called "Emergency Law". We are going to have free and fair parliamentary elections on 7 May 2012 and in those elections the regime's party is surely going to trounce every other party in the field in open political competition for the votes of the good people of Syria -- open except religious and tribal parties are banned. There will be only token opposition members in the resulting parliament because all the opposition factions will have gotten their arses handed to them on plates in fair contest. And afterwards the Baath Party will proceed with more modernization and more real progress for Syria, in areas of eduction, increasing economic output, and so on. I have read most of the new legislation I just mentioned, and honestly I do not know what Sharmine has in mind when she claims this reform program was "watered down".

poor analysis and one-sided and only reflects the regime's view on things... So today Bab Amr, tomorrow Idlib, after Hama, then after that Daraa.... and to finish off with Damascus Suburbs... great!! let us wait until the army destroys all the country and its infrastructure.. then we will start the so-claimed reforms to fix what has been demolished, and live another 10 years waiting for real political reforms ... what a joke...and what an empty article that failed to shed any light on a new thing, but repeat the Syrian official story !!

The towns would NOT need to be attacked by the army if there were NO armed gangs, including foreign terrorists and black-ops. Not mentioning "opposition" calling for NATO BOMBING of Syria. So, WHO is destroying Syria, just like they have done with Libya, and before Iraq, Afghanistan and so on?

Excellent analysis as always...

Thanks a lot! This is excellent. It agrees with the reading I have of the uprising since its beginning (when I had been watching al Jazeera since the end of December, almost 8 to 10 hours per day and saw the evolution of the narratives). One should also emphasizes the fact that if all cameras were turned on Syria by the media, it is because al Jazeera had to take the cameras away from Bahrein and Yemen, which both fall in the "private domains" of the Saudis.

they are only armed gangs in Bahrain that are sponsored by an outside force. How do you like the Bashar Logic?

This is SAUDI king logic - i.e. a lie. No wonder that kh used it to defend Saudi king - the greatest friend of Arab democracy :)

now the TRUTH
1) Bahrain protesters are NOT armed. NO one now denies that in Syria there ARE armed gangs
2) There is NO proof (if one does not count Saudi propaganda) that Bahrain protesters are NOT home-grown
But the source of armed gangs aka FSA are OPEN - both NATO states and GCC rulers are BRAGGING or at least admitting that the gangs got arms, money and safe heaven from abroad - from the same NATO/GCC.

Well said Lidia.

Lidia works full-time.

A good article.

I hope the author is right and there will be NO Libya-2 in Syria.

On the other hand, I hope there will be more positive outcome regarding the influence of Saudi and other GCC royals in the ME, and more space for leftist opposition in Syria. Let as wait and see.

Excellent in every way. Just a bit weak in characterizing the Syrian President's planned reforms. The election results should and will change the current government as well as the pace and depth of the planned reforms.

I doubt that the reforms will work in favour of the strategic interests of the President and any new government that he may lead, if such reforms prove to be "watered-down" as you have suggested.

I think President Assad is intelligent enough not to walk into that trap because Syrians may lose total confidence in him if he does. The $64 question is, would he survive his own internal circle and its allies if he does not?

i agree with most of your analysis, except for the glaring omission. the assad regime is a hideously brutal one, and the main thing motivating the protests and widespread army defections is not foreign intrigue but a genuine revolt by ordinary syrian people. why is it that everything you write seems designed to obscure this one rather obvious fact?

of the syrian govt was hideously brutal, youd not see massive rallies by syrian supporting it! right?!

Lidia will reply to this one.

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