Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center and fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, did not open a bottle of champagne when he first learned that President Barack Obama accepted the political compromise that would allow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stay in his Damascus palace. Shaikh has been working extensively to facilitate national dialogue among Syrian constituencies and key figures. The Pakistani-born former UN official and British citizen is a policy adviser on regional and international involvement in the Syrian crisis. He served as special assistant to the UN special coordinator to the Middle East peace process, and political adviser to the UN secretary-general’s personal representative for Lebanon during the 2006 war. Shaikh also worked as director for policy and research in the Office of Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned, consort of the former emir of Qatar.
In a telephone interview with Al-Monitor, he seemed to agree with Ambassador Nassif Hitti's observation on Oct. 7 that the chemical weapons crisis “is encouraging the regime to become more intransigent.”
"We are working on bringing all the different communities together," Shaikh told me, “but the regime catches up with most of those people, so we have to find another way with much more legitimacy and credibility. We are running also workshops. The last workshop we ran took place in Paris for several days, in which we brought together a defected officer from the Alawite side, Muslim Brotherhood members, Christians, Kurds and Druze. For the Alawites, the bottom-line interest was about security; for the others it was about land or property rights, governance, road map, and federalism. [During the workshop] we started to see in a very short period of time a snapshot of what is possible. But this national dialogue must be done in a much more structured way and it needs much more regional and international support, which could include the Russians, the moderate Arab states, the United States and Europe.”
Are all these communities willing also to collaborate to isolate the insurgent elements?
“Yes, they are, and in the end most of the tribal peoples and most of the Sunnis know that they will have to fight those extremist elements. That is what the tribes have been telling us, but they were not given support. They blame the regime for having released most of those extremists and even supported them in some ways. Now we have extremist groups that are already established, with financial sources of revenue, by trading oil, for instance, and which are controlling the relief of certain populations. This creates a very dangerous situation.”
From your experience in the region, do you believe that the West has a partner in the Syrian opposition?
“The official opposition has not been able to build credibility and presence on the ground. That is a fact. But the regime and the official opposition are not representative of the majority of the Syrians. The challenge is how you engage with those people for a change to happen. It could become more of a possibility if there was an understanding that Assad would actually step aside.
“One of the reasons I have been such an advocate of a genuine intra-Syrian dialogue, is the desire to prevent the Alawite community from being attacked after Assad's fall. However, I am afraid that the official opposition has so far failed to present itself as a credible vehicle for such a dialogue.”
Does the American threat to remove Assad have any impact?
“There is no credible threat of the US force now on the table and I think it is a big mistake.
“Assad will collaborate on the chemical weapons, but only because he looks at the large picture: He still believes in victory and thinks he can get it. People in Damascus reported to me that during those few days leading up to a possible American strike, the situation inside the regime was one of real panic. Now they are sitting rather comfortably in Damascus, there is less of a sense of fear and encroachment for the regime. It is an undeniable situation on the ground.”
What would have happened, had the Americans struck Syria?
“First, the Americans would have obtained the result that they wanted, where Assad would have left eventually. Instead, many feel that he has been rehabilitated, that he is today the guy to talk to, to rely on to get rid of the chemical weapons. If they had followed through, the regime itself would have been concerned that it may not be able to hold the line, when it came to Damascus itself. Certain soldiers from within the regular army may well have decided to run away, especially if a sustained attack would have taken place over at least a two-three day period. That could have become a real window of opportunity for the rebels. This is perhaps what the Americans calculated, that there was a genuine weakness among the regime, that the strike would have led to a chaos, without having any clear political alternative. You can still maintain the credible US threat on the table, but it seems that the Americans have no intention to do so, even if they talk about pushing Assad to leave the stage.”
How long will it take to put an end to this tragedy?
"This will take years. Assad believes he can win and will probably get to elections in 2014. The alternatives to Assad need to be nurtured and developed. Assad has successfully, to a large degree, won the narrative battle. He has, since day one, spoken about jihadist groups supported by external powers and al-Qaeda, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In parallel, he has enclosed himself in the language of 'one Syria,' which is nonsense. Assad's regime was one of the most sectarian societies, and they did maintain it by terror as others did in the region, such as the Iraqi Shiites. Some of these extremist groups are truly reprehensible, and someone at the end will have to fight them, and it should be first and foremost the Syrians.
"Those Syrians who are sitting on the fence, in the grey zone, whether they are Sunnis, Alawites or Christians — they define themselves as Syrian first. The Alawites are not supporting Assad — they are only afraid for their own security, and that is exactly why Syrians from other communities, such as the Sunnis, should have done their absolute best to reach out to them. Yet, they have not.”
Do you believe that removing Assad from the stage is an Israeli interest?
“The key question Israel should deal with is: Are we ready to continue living under Assad's threat, or does Israel understand that Assad is not anymore a force of stability for the region? The possibility of the Iranians dealing seriously with the nuclear issue could lead to a transformation in the whole region and could lead to a wider understanding of the regional security architecture. An incredible transformation started. Some compare it to the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.