Fifteen months after the crisis broke and took some 15,000 lives, no end is in sight for the Syrian conflict. With the interests of regional powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as Russia, China and the US lining up with Syrian parties, the conflict has emerged as an existential struggle that makes compromise hard to achieve.
US-led efforts to co-opt Russia and to end to the crisis have failed. Recent meetings in Geneva and the Friends of Syria conference in Paris have shown that the UN Security Council remains neutralized and international diplomacy stagnant. Without a UN resolution, the US and Western powers have neither the desire nor the political will to intervene militarily in Syria in a manner similar to the Libyan intervention. In short, there’s still no end of conflict for Syria.
In the past year, the main strategy of the US and Western allies has been to wage economic and a psychological war, using muscular diplomacy and threats rather than force to tilt the balance of power within Syria against the Assad regime. In Paris earlier this month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged countries that still have influence in Damascus to step up and use their leverage to make sure “Assad sees the writing on the wall.”
Following the defection of Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, Clinton suggested that regime insiders and military leaders are voting with their feet, a statement designed to encourage other officials to follow Tlass’ example. A day after the defection of Syria's ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares, the highest-ranking Syrian official to flee Bashar al-Assad's government, Clinton called on “the Syrian military and business community to choose a democratic future rather than to cling to this crumbling regime," an explicit call for other Syrian officials to jump a sinking ship.
Russia and China’s refusal to attend the third Paris conference in July illustrates the serious divisions among the great powers on the Syrian crisis. During the late June Geneva meeting of the Syria Action Group, including permanent members of the UN Security Council along with Turkey and Arab states, Russia and China agreed to a document on establishment of a transitional government of national unity, with full executive powers. Despite a subtle shift in Moscow’s position, Russia still opposes regime change in Damascus led by the Western powers and the UN. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that the West is trying to “blackmail” his country by threatening not to renew the UN observers' mandate unless Russia votes for a new Security Council resolution under Chapter Seven, which might open the door to military intervention. By holding a large-scale naval exercise in the Mediterranean, Russia has underlined the seriousness of its opposition to the use of force to remove Assad from power.
After the third Paris meeting, Clinton urged every country represented at the meeting to "directly and urgently [make] it clear that Russia and China will pay a price” for keeping to the sidelines.
The rhetoric in the US and the West that Assad's days are numbered should be viewed sceptically. Washington has gambled on Assad’s downfall for more than a year, showing either that Syria is hard to read or that the US is hoping for a stroke of luck. Whatever the case, regime collapse in Damascus is not a smart bet for now.
Clinton is correct on one point: The armed-wing of the opposition is growing stronger. Thanks to increased arms from Saudi Arabia and Qatar through Turkey, with the direct blessing of the US, recent opposition attacks have become more potent. The rebels have taken the war to Damascus and Aleppo, the heart of the regime’s power base. The increased pace of senior military defections also shows that Turkey has become more proactive reaching out to senior officers, in trying to squeeze the Assad regime, particularly after the June 22 downing of its jet by Syria.
While the Western powers aim to tip the balance of power against Assad, he and his inner circle act on the premise that they hold the upper hand. In his 27 June address to his newly appointed cabinet, Assad for the first time acknowledged that Syria is in a state of real war and must use all options at its disposal to win this war. Far from conceding ground, Assad has intensified attacks against the opposition and stepped up his war of words, accusing the US of supporting terrorism. Assad appears to be determined to fight to the bitter end preserve his family rule.
Assad's strength is not simply rhetorical. Despite defections, the Syrian security forces have proved to be more cohesive and resilient than many in the West had supposed. Assad has also benefited from the crisis becoming mired in a fierce regional struggle between Iran, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States on the other. Iran is providing pivotal economic and military support for the Assad regime. As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, Iran is as important, if not more important, than Russia: While Assad is isolated internationally and regionally, the support from Iran as well as Iraq has provided a lifeline.
Conceding that the peace initiative has failed, Annan has shifted from trying to achieve a ceasefire to focusing on political mediation between the Syrian government and the opposition. But even before Annan left his meeting with Assad, the Syrian National Council had issued a statement disagreeing with Annan’s decision to involve Iran. The Iranians, SNC wrote on Facebook, “cannot be part of the solution unless their positions change radically.” Other opposition figures vehemently attacked Annan’s outreach to Iran.
Despite Annan’s persistent efforts, the odds are against a political breakthrough. The trust deficit between the two warring camps has grown, leading both the opposition and the Assad regime to view the struggle as existential and hunker down for a prolonged fight. The opposition has repeatedly stressed unwillingness to negotiate with the Syrian regime unless Assad steps down. Assad still acts on the premise that there’s a security solution, continuing to deploy massive force to crush the opposition with little success.
For all these reasons, protracted armed conflict is likely to continue. The lack of credible information about the Syrian regime's machinations makes predictions hazardous. Starving Assad out of power is a working strategy, not a proven tactic. Although pressing sanctions are bleeding the Syrian economy, the government has found means to adjust. Syria can sustain itself only as long as Iran maintains its current level of support, increasingly challenging because of its own suffocating economic sanctions.
Ultimately, the balance of power in Syria will determine whether Assad goes. Can Assad maintain cohesiveness of his narrowing ruling coalition? Though Assad’s days are not as few as Clinton suggests, there are signs that the regime is not durable and that the likelihood of a rupture within is real.
The flight of the middle and professional classes, in addition to senior officers and senior diplomats, is proof of growing doubts about Assad's capacity to survive and his coercive power. Tlass’ and Fares’s defections seem to be more related to the destruction in their hometowns rather than a change of heart about Assad. Nevertheless, recent defections in the military, along with loss of territory, have not reached a critical mass that threatens the regime’s immediate survival.
There is a standoff between the opposition and the Assad regime, neither capable of destroying the other. The failure of international diplomacy means more violence and a bloody, hot summer in this war-torn country.
Fawaz A. Gerges is a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics where he directs the Middle East Centre. His book O
bama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment?has just been released. Rights:Copyright © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online
Post Script: This article was written before the developments in Syria today in which the country's defence minister was killed in a suicide attack