Where is the Syrian crisis headed? What path will it take in light of the continuing violence by both the official and opposition sides, and the entry of Al-Qaeda into the bloody violence that has already claimed many innocent people? Is it possible to reach some kind of settlement that can pull Syria out of the current bloodshed and save Lebanon from the repercussions of the conflict? To what extent can such a settlement succeed in the face of conflicting directions and international and regional considerations?
These questions have repeatedly been raised for over the past year and five months. Some have resurfaced in relation to recent developments, particularly the alleged emergence of Al-Qaeda in Lebanon. These debates were accompanied by a series of US, Russian and general Western warnings about the possible extension of the Syrian catastrophe into Lebanon.
A Lebanese diplomatic report says that both the Russian and US sides see a limit to the Syrian crisis. The Barack Obama administration still believes that change in Syria is inevitable. However, it fears of a radical fundamentalist alternative. The Russian leadership still maintains its position, which rejects the establishment of a completely different regime. But it is now convinced that has done all it can. Military action against the opposition has dragged on too long and did not lead to a decisive solution. Whenever an area is “cleansed” (in the security sense of the term) of militants, these militants move to another area. This has led the Russians to believe that a military solution is impossible. They now ask themselves: What should be done?
What makes the Russian question more urgent is the fact that they (along with China) still insist on protecting the regime. However, the cost of maintaining this position is increasing by the day. The Russians did not expect such a radical and stern stance on the part of the Gulf states. They have expressed to the Gulf states that they will not see Syria turn into “another Libya" and that they reject the establishment of an extremist authority that would threaten Russia’s national security. Instead of taking Russia’s stance into consideration, the Gulf states — namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar — became more intransigent. They continue to insist that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad step down, and stress that their position — which now threatens Russian-Arab interests — is irreversible.
More than once, the Gulf states have made propositions to Russia to resolve the Syrian crisis the “Yemeni way,” whereby Vice President Farouq al-Shara would hold the presidential post during a transitional period. However, the Russians rejected this proposal, and the Syrian leadership refused to even discuss it. The fact that UN envoy Kofi Annan had not been given an appointment with Farouk al-Shara until today [May 28] is proof of the regime’s refusal. The idea of forming a Syrian government headed by a prominent local opposition figure has been also proposed, but no one knows in what direction this effort is heading. It is noteworthy that the Ba'ath party’s sweeping victory in the People’s Assembly (where they won a majority of the seats) and the election of the house speaker and members of the parliamentary bureau were perceived negatively, even to some of the opposition figures who won in the elections.
According to the diplomatic report, the "what to do" question posed by the Russians is conversely being asked by the US, who seem to have reached a dead end after pursuing several diplomatic methods. This reality has pushed the Russians and the US to begin negotiations on Syria. The question now is: Should the Russians and the US also negotiate with the Syrians, Saudis, Iranians and Turks? The answer is "definitely yes." According to the available information, the two sides are currently on a positive trajectory.
The US has understood that the Russians will not accept Assad’s removal, and the Russians have understood from the US that this situation cannot continue as is and requires a specific direction and track. The West realizes that the Syrian leadership — which sometimes finds itself forced to oppose the Russian side — will not back down from its positions. This is because the regime relies on a very complex structure that is extremely resistant to all attempts to break it apart, even if this leads to a long internal war.
What about the repercussions of the conflict in Lebanon? The diplomatic report indicates that "though the Syrian crisis has affected Lebanon in different ways, most recently through the abduction of Lebanese citizens in Syrian territory, the principal Muslim leaders — House Speaker Nabih Berri, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, [former] prime minister Saad al-Hariri, and MP Walid Jumblatt — do not want a civil war in Lebanon. This is because they will all emerge from it as losers, regardless of [how things play out]. Similarly, neither Saudi Arabia nor Syria nor Iran want a war in Lebanon that does not serve any of their interests. And the Western countries are currently not considering destabilizing Lebanon. To the contrary, they are deliberately making assurances on the preservation of stability and civil peace, and repeatedly praise the ‘self-distancing’ policy adopted by Najib Mikati’s government."
The report notes that some diplomatic circles "have observed that some Lebanese parties seek to turn northern Lebanon into an area that is similar to Homs in Syria. Security incidents would undermine the army’s role, disperse its forces and eventually lead to its retreat. Then, the area would become open and safe for arms and insurgents. All groups and nations that are against the regime in Syria would establish a presence in this area. As some countries have decided to overthrow the Syrian regime, the easiest way to use Tripoli and northern Lebanon would be by bringing it out of the sphere of authority and legitimacy. They can do this by claiming, ‘We do not want a war in Lebanon, but we want this region to be outside the authority’s jurisdiction, and as a platform to carry out security operations against the Syrian regime.’"
The diplomatic report refers to the recent positions of President Michel Suleiman:
"In a proactive step, [Suleiman] took a clear position by saying that ‘we are dealing positively with the entry of displaced Syrians to the Lebanese territories through the provision of every humanitarian assistance to them, and we do not accept their forceful return to Syria. We welcome the cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to ensure that their humanitarian needs met. We also call for a fast solution to the issue of the arrested Islamists, but not at the expense of justice and their rights. We are carrying out economic and social development projects in the north. We reject any area falling outside the control of the Lebanese state to become a platform for military action against Syria. We also do not accept Syria becoming a platform for hostile acts against Lebanon.’"
President Suleiman’s position also provided full political cover for the army, in the face of the criticism it has come under after the seizure of the Lutfallah II ship and the events in Tripoli and Akkar. The president is the only official in the Lebanese state who did not exert any pressure on General Security to release Shadi al-Mawlawi. Rather, he provided political cover for General Security when he called for the judiciary to assume its role, thus raising the morale of the security and military institutions.
The report says that officials have taken “inconsistent” positions on the provision of cover for the security and judicial institutions, the treatment of the Syrian refugee issue, the issue of detained Islamists and development projects in the north and elsewhere. These inconsistencies have produced policies in which decisive action is taken selectively. The government tries to act as tolerantly as it can without endangering the state’s prestige. Thus, the government made its most recent call for dialogue only after it tested the general sentiment in several of the world’s capitals. The result was a decision to sit the Lebanese around the dialogue table. It was decided that the government and its “self-distancing” policy — applicable to Tripoli and its border areas — would not be altered.
The report concludes with impressions from Lebanese officials that "all parties are prohibited from using Lebanon as a platform to attack Syria. On the other hand, we welcome [Syrian] refugees, treat them well, and do not return them to where they came from. If we do not accept this policy, we would be placing ourselves and our country at the heart of the Gulf-Syrian confrontation. This is especially since Syrian envoy to the UN Bashar al-Jaafari’s message to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and the Security Council demonstrated a strong set of goals that justify military intervention. However, to our knowledge, the UN will not take such a step.”