For Syria, Assad no longer the issue and diplomacy no longer a pure solution
By Ghassan Michel RubeizGhassan Rubeiz
The Syrian crisis can no longer be resolved by the Syrians themselves. If Saudi Arabia and Iran do not cooperate to rescue Syria soon the ongoing civil war will continue to divide the country into autonomous zones of influence: The western territories controlled by the formerly ruling Alawites and what remains of the Assad regime, the northern territories controlled by the heretofore oppressed Kurdish community, the east controlled by the emerging Islamic State, ISIS, and the southern portion currently controlled by the Al Nusra, with a large Druze population. Among these various territories borders will continue to fluctuate, alliances to shift, legitimacy to fade and security to shrink.
Over the last four years and a half civil war has virtually eroded the state structure. The warring factions currently run militarized territories within Syria. The Syrian regime has been degraded into a militia-like system. President Assad has become dependent financially and militarily on Iran, Russia and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
Assad’s argument for staying in power to “save” the nation is not sincere. His goal is allegedly to prevent Syria’s disintegration into an Islamic state. But in fact, the longer he stays in power the weaker he gets. The more fighting – between the regime and the rebels and among the rebels – the less the chances are for reuniting the nation. As rebels advance in conquest Islamists gain advantage over secular insurgents. As Islamic ideology permeates the fabric of society – with the spread of the transnational Islamic State- the foreign fighters in the struggle dominate over the indigenous rebels.
Several years of fighting, 260 thousand deaths, many more injured, ten million displaced, three quarters of the country “liberated”, have not driven Assad to resign.
Increasingly analysts predict that there will soon be a Syria without Assad. They point to ongoing contacts among Russian, American and Saudi diplomats about Syria, Turkish new military designs (border security and repatriation zone?) and Ankara’s enhanced cooperation with Washington in fighting ISIS. There are unconfirmed reports that Assad is nearing the stage of packing up; there may be scenarios of a Washington-approved “political” solution involving Assad exiting gracefully, albeit in steps. Supporters of the Iran nuclear deal speculate that Tehran may now be confident, and Moscow “tired”- of Assad-, to compromise on Syria: Assad would step down if there are solid guarantees for the protection of his Alawite (Shiite offshoot) community.
But things have changed; even if Assad’s departure is imminent, his presence at the helm may no longer be the most serious issue for political transition. The real issue is how to rebuild a totally failed state. The negative prognosis for all unraveling Arab states is absence of parliamentary life, weak civic society and poor leadership. For forty years Syrians had lived in a society where security is maintained with silence of citizens and cooptation of representatives.
As the country is now severely divided regional, ground intervention is the only hope to start to resurrect what is left of Syria. If Saudi Arabia and Iran could set aside their long standing differences -with the joint support of Washington and Moscow- to cooperate on a plan for Syria, President Assad would be eased out swiftly. A safe departure for Assad would signify the start of a climate of compromise and pragmatism. Part of the regime would be dismantled but not the national army and the infrastructure bureaucracy for security and services.
Any regional plan for Syria cannot be purely political even if it is backed by superior American, European and regional airpower. An Arab military campaign on the ground must accompany diplomacy and air power intervention in order to liquidate ISIS, the Nusra Front and other alien groups which are not willing to withdraw, negotiate or participate in state rebuilding.
Both Tehran and Saudi Arabia have recently expressed interest in cooperation on Syria but competing regional interests between Tehran and Riyadh maybe too deep to allow for decisive intervention. More relevant than the Saudi-Iranian conflict to the tragedy of Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Sudan is a regional environment of political paralysis and fratricide. For a while, sadly, expect more of the same for Syria and other unraveling Arab states.