Political science indicates that, in any country in a state of civil war involving two sides, both have an incentive to raise the ceiling of their demands to the maximum prior to the start of any negotiations. This is now taking place in Syria. The main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, is demanding as a precondition before accepting any political settlement the departure of Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile those close to Assad stress that his departure is simply not on the table, and that he plans to run as a presidential candidate in elections scheduled for 2014. Still, as the Syrian war approaches the close of its second year, the regime remains capable of imposing its own terms, even if the price remains dreadfully high. This is an unusual situation for wars similar to that now raging in Syria. It is being sustained by a number of factors, the most salient of which are as follows:
First, the notable strength of those army divisions propping up the regime by force, thanks to the complex logistic, organizational, and sectarian structure left behind by the late President Hafez al-Assad.
Second, the vehemence of Russian and Chinese stances in preventing any external military intervention.
Third, the absence of any high level political or military defections that could threaten the army’s effective cohesion.
Fourth, the appearance of groups and units with a Takfiri or pro-al-Qaeda orientation that has raised hackles in Washington.
Fifth, the infighting among the various opposition groups.
Sixth, Iran’s declared and undeclared threats against anyone who supports toppling the Assad regime by force.
Seventh, the rallying of the Alawites, other minorities, and a portion of the Sunnis around the regime, whether out of conviction or fear of the future.
Eighth, worries harbored by some Gulf states about the Muslim Brotherhood gaining control over Syria. A hostile transition could occur with little warning and there have recently been reports of clashes between Jabhat al-Nusrah and the Free Syrian Army in some regions.
All these factors have enabled Moscow to move with greater vigor. If one were to tally up all the pro-regime declarations made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, it would probably outnumber those made by Syria’s own Foreign Minister Walid Moallem dozens of times over. As one member of the Syrian opposition jokingly put it, “It’s gotten so that we ought to call him ‘Sergei Moallem.’”
The Russian leadership would not taken this course unless it was convinced, as is Iran, that the regime’s military might remains significant and capable of turning the tables. Neither would it have taken this course if it were not convinced that administration of American President Barack Obama is caught on the horns of a dilemma in Syria, and that it is turning a blind eye to the fact that the Syrian Army is operating in regions where al-Qaeda or groups and formations that America has accused of terrorism have a base. It is true that Washington and certain European countries have threatened Syria against using chemical weapons, but it is also true that the use of all non-chemical weapons are being tolerated. At least so far.
What does the data say?
The Obama administration is enduring a crisis that is fast developing into a major embarrassment. It is clear that some of the $25 million it allocated to the opposition National Coalition has been given to Jabhat al-Nusrah, something which caused a great deal of consternation, that has so far been kept hidden, particularly as Washington placed Jabhat al-Nusrah on the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. It is said that certain American diplomats paid for this with their jobs.
Moscow is loudly warning of unbridled chaos, sectarian war, and the Somalia-ization of Syria if a political solution is not achieved. Even as Russia issues warnings, though, it is seeking to broaden its contacts among the opposition while simultaneously creating a rift in Arab ranks and drawing certain parties around to Moscow’s position. Then there are new reports coming from Egypt, Iraq, Algeria and some Gulf States. They speak of an ongoing resentment harbored by Gulf leaders, particularly of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, against President Assad. One that UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has described as reaching the level of “personal hatred” and that, according to him, hinders a peaceful solution. As a result of the latest Russian moves, Moscow will soon host at least one Arab foreign minister, and possibly more. The Russian leadership finds itself in dire need of the Arab political cover this might provide.
The Russian leadership considers the survival of the Syrian Army as a strong, cohesive fighting force the most effective — and possibly the only — guarantee of Syria’s future. And not only of Syria’s future, but of Russia’s future in Syria. Lavrov has said as much on more than one occasion in the recent past. He noted some members of the opposition continue to shun the military establishment in all of their rhetoric. This is precisely what explains some of the flexibility of Russia’s positions regarding Assad’s remaining in power, and their vehement rejection of any foreign military intervention. The Syrian army, as far as Moscow is concerned, is a red line. Russian officials have recently said as much to their guests, and they have successfully imposed this upon Washington as a condition for any future settlement. Washington itself has signaled its acceptance of this term on more than occasion, as for instance when it declared that government and security institutions “must remain intact” in the post-Assad period.
Some Gulf countries that harbor a fundamental hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood have opened lines of communication to those factions of the opposition unaffiliated with the Brotherhood. There is a real intention to widen the margin of cooperation with the National Coordination Council (NCC), an effort led by NCC spokesman Haytham al-Manna. Some of these countries have got their foot in the door through aid, while others through generic politicking. This extends even to Tunisia where President Moncef Marzouki will soon present a plan clarifying that he is closer to the secular opposition than the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Syria.
The European Union is currently experiencing a heated debate over its relations with the Syrian opposition. Most of this discussion revolves around the questions posed by the existence of Jabhat al-Nusrah. Some Europeans are demanding it be placed on the list of terrorist organizations while others, like London, Paris and Madrid, insist on postponing the matter. One of their more prominent diplomats, who recently met with Syrians, said that “when Assad leaves, we will put Jabhat al-Nusrah on the list of terrorist groups immediately.” When the Syrian dissident asked: “But do you have any idea when Assad will depart?” The diplomat responded, “No one has any concept as to when that happens, but he will go sooner or later.” The dissident replied, “how?” and the diplomat responded “I don’t know,” and lapsed into silence.
The Europeans are dealing with another problem as well. Namely, their sense of being marginalized by the Geneva Initiative as well as in the current negotiations between Moscow, Washington, and Brahimi. The UN envoy himself has in private meetings focused exclusively on the American and Russian tracks. He believes that the only hurdle in the way of a resolution lies in some of the Gulf States. He says that he enjoys excellent relations with the Americans and that he would not have accepted the mission if he had not had a prior understanding with them. He also says that he knows Lavrov up close and has worked with him for year but “the problem is in some of the hot-headed leaders of some Arab states.” He wants to bring in Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey (the last only to avoid causing embarrassment) in order to provide guarantees of a future settlement. The Egyptian Foreign Minister seems enthusiastic about the prospect.
Meetings with some factions of the Syrian opposition, including the NCC, as well as with a number of Iranian officials have permitted the range of discussion concerning Syria's future. It is true that Tehran has different opinions about what is transpiring in Syria, and that some officials had hesitated to come to Damascus in protest against the bloody specter of Syria’s internal situation, but it is also true that Tehran has told its guests that a political solution depends upon an agreement between the opposition and the regime, and that Tehran will support any faction that will keep Syria within the resistance camp. Its officials have also said that, even though Iran itself is an Islamic regime, it prefers that Syria be ruled by a democratic regime, whatever its character. Tehran is now going even further than that, and attempting to convince the regime to release opposition prisoners, and is aiding the regime in searching for some of them.
The Syrian opposition, for its part, will see a rising antagonism between its various factions. All attempts to unite them under the banner of the National Coalition have failed. One of these attempts, for example, was disclosed by a prominent Syrian dissident. He revealed that several senior Saudi officials, including several princes, personally demanded that members of the opposition join the coalition in exchange for half a million dollars and a monthly stipend of $10,000 per person.
Some signs of the dissension, for example, include the fact that several members of the opposition have deliberately discredited the narrative of a massacre at the Helfaya bakery in the Hama countryside. One confirmed that, in the area that was bombed, no bakery even existed to begin with. He also revealed that of the 47 who were killed, 40 of them were either members of Jabhat al-Nusrah or their supporters. The rest of the bodies were unidentified. That means that the issue ultimately goes back to the question of foreign fighters. He says that they were bombed by the army in response to the targeting of one of their bases. The foreign fighters were the ones were the ones who threw bread upon the dead in order to say the victims were massacred while simply trying to get their daily bread.
What about Russia and America?
Reports confirm that the two sides' positions have moved much closer together. Both want the Syrian army to remain intact to confront the spread of al-Qaeda and terrorism more broadly. Both have come to accept that officials from the current regime will participate in a future settlement. Both want the opposition to become more inclusive, and are cooperating with some of the Gulf states to bring this about. It should come as no surprise that the UAE or the Sultanate of Oman should be welcoming delegations from the non-Muslim Brotherhood segments of the opposition.
Moscow understands the delicacy of the American position concerning Assad's remaining in power. Still, Russian officials say to anyone who asks, "Let's put this issue aside and come to an agreement about Syria's political future.”
Should the questioner persist on seeking a clarification of Moscow's position, Lavrov will give the following answer, "We don't have any prophets in Syria. Europe’s relations with Assad were a hundred times stronger than our own. But this is a Syrian matter, and until now President Assad has not told us that he wants to leave office. We cannot force him to do so and it is not our role to pressure him. We have done what we must do regarding chemical weapons and other matters, but the other side has not halted its support for the armed opposition. Indeed, they have continued doing so, in direct contradiction to the interest of Syria and Syrians."
One might elaborate on the Russian position on Assad by noting that the Syrian president himself has not seemed averse to shortening the length of his current term and holding early elections, on condition that he is able to run as a candidate in those elections. That is, should a political agreement with the opposition be reached. A prominent Syrian dissident has also conveyed as much. Those close to Assad say that, if he runs again, it would prove to everyone that the lion’s share of the Syrian people remains by his side. Another Syrian dissident hastens to say that Assad will not run, because he knows that he won't win even a minuscule percentage of the votes.
One European diplomat who previously met with Assad states that the Syrian president is not the sort of man who would tolerate making a concession, and that he is convinced that he is combating an Islamic-Gulf-Western offensive against him. He further added that the hard core of the regime — namely, the Alawite sect and the senior officers — will categorically reject such a concession, as there is currently no Alawite alternative to Assad. Likewise, all the Western attempts to convince a senior Alawite military commander to defect have failed — regardless of what Manaf Tlass tells his French interlocutors about being in contact with Alawite military leaders.
One European diplomat believes that Assad, who often professes before his guests that he would accept, from a legal and constitutional perspective, the holding of early elections should an agreement be concluded with the opposition. And he would plan to run in them. But he would not accept, under any circumstances whatsoever, calling into effect a cease-fire before a political agreement was reached and guarantees were provided. In other words, a cease-fire would follow an agreement, not precede it.
According to this diplomat, the extremism of the positions adopted by the West, the National Coalition, and the rebel armed groups toward Assad's departure differs from one group to another. The armed groups and some pillars of the opposition actually want him to leave, and are ready to fight to overthrow him. The rest understand that raising the ceiling of their demands to such a degree must be followed by a reduction in their demands, so as to obtain positions in the future government.
One well-known Syrian figure agrees with this position. He says that the current conflict between the various groups of the opposition and the heated debate between Moscow and Washington no longer centers upon whether Assad will stay or go, but how to distribute government positions and spoils.
They noted with great interest the statement Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa recently made to the Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar. It's true that his remarks did not garner a great deal of support from the Syrian leadership, but there are those who place great importance on Sharaa as the future nucleus for any negotiation process. Among them are Baathists living inside Syria and abroad, as well as some military and political leaders. They believe that a reformist step like this will lead to a broad opening for a dialogue with the opposition, one that will receive international support, even if it comes in the shadow of an implicit understanding with Assad, or as a result of a green light from him.
There are indications that important political rifts may soon develop internationally and among Arab states. Brahimi is optimistic of an approaching Russian-American convergence, despite his general pessimism over the internal situation in Syria and the positions of some Arab states. But mattes will not move as quickly as some assume. One must wait for Obama's administration to take shape as well as for progress on the American-Iranian negotiations. Iran is eager to put out as many fires as possible, including the fire in Syria, before its own as-yet-uncertain elections are held.
To be sure, the train is moving forward, but the problem lies in its course. States of such vast strategic importance as Syria must reach a solution before many more additional battles. During periods of negotiations, each side must raise pressure on the other to the maximum. Credible Western information indicates that Jabhat al-Nusrah and some of the other brigades will execute profoundly dangerous operations in the near future to demonstrate their prowess on the ground. Other states that still believe that Assad must go, even if by force, such as France and Britain, are encouraging the battle against the regime to continue. Some documented evidence suggests that there are substantial differences separating Paris and Washington on the question of arming the rebels and the Syrian future.
Where is Lebanon?
Western sources stress that "dangerous" elements of al-Qaeda are present in Lebanon and that other elements of the Free Syrian Army have come to find a "welcoming environment." It is said that Western capitals, including Paris, have officially demanded that the National Coalition and those influential with the armed rebel groups preserve Lebanon's neutrality. It is also said that Western intelligence officials have come more than once to Lebanon in the recent past, or hosted their Lebanese counterparts in Europe. They have purportedly exchanged information that has made clear that certain members of al-Qaeda wanted by Western countries have arrived in Lebanon and Syria, and that there is a significant probability that they are engaged in terrorist activities. Therefore information exchanges are being intensified and some Lebanese security apparatuses are being equipped with advanced surveillance and logistical equipment.
Such information, if added to the lists of al-Qaeda fighters in Syria that Russia has provided to the Americans, would likely render Moscow and Washington more willing to reach a political settlement. But all this remains at least two months away and subject to security developments on the ground. All indications say that violence will increase, because a settlement remains in its infancy and each side continues to insist that it is capable of winning a conclusive victory. Meanwhile, massive vested interest have come to intersect with one another, particularly those pertaining to the oil discoveries off the Mediterranean.
Waiting for all to be convinced that a solution will be implemented in what remains of Syria, it seems that much innocent blood remains to be shed before either negotiations make progress, or military developments significant enough to change the equation take place in a country where everything has become possible.