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Books on Syria


Update No: 116 - (26/10/13)

Summary: The other, and much more important result of Russian diplomacy and Obama’s Syrian bluff, is the enabling of US-Iran negotiations, which overshadow in geopolitical terms even the Syrian civil war itself. The talks would take place in the context of the Geneva II talks, which should take place even if many rebel groups have been very reluctant to participate. Iran has itself offered to host a peace conference, involving all of Syria’s neighboring countries, including Turkey. Interestingly, given that Israel also borders Syria, it will be interesting to see if such a conference would serve as an opportunity to recognize Israel. As outrageously progressive this might sound, President Obama and President Rouhani have already spoken on the phone – not since the Shah, has a US president spoken to an Iranian leader at the official level.

What chance Peace?
The Syrian crisis dominated the agenda at the recent G20 summit in St. Petersburg, all but concluding a dramatic phase that saw the United States almost becoming dramatically involved in yet another Middle Eastern adventure. The American drive to intervene in Syria with missile strikes may, or may not have been, a bluff from President Obama – who cleverly managed to keep his options open, passing the ultimate responsibility for the proposed attacks to Congress, which where of course it has always constitutionally belonged!

However, one result has been to elevate Russian diplomacy, as well as the weight of the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) in international relations, perhaps the beginning of the end, of a long period of American monopoly that harks back to the closing years of WWII and the long subsequent Cold War. The post 9/11 era has arrived. The United States may have started to let go of the notion of the former president, that it can export democracy to the Middle East – or anywhere else.

The crux of the ‘casus belli’ of this recent international crisis was the alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad loyalists. In principle, NATO and Russia agreed to collaborate on a possible supervision of operations of chemical weapons destruction, but only under a UN mandate. During the G-20 itself, on the sidelines of the summit, US Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, hinted that NATO would adopt an active role, failing to mention Russian involvement. Now, Russia and the United States have rejected a plan to transfer the chemical arsenal to their respective territories for ultimate disposal, by suggesting that any such action must take place in Syria. That dispute continues, but the UN Experts are on the ground in Syria making progress.

The first step in implementing the Russian-American Framework Agreement for the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria was Syria’s accession, on 14 September, to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). In addition to the Convention, the legal basis for Syria’s chemical disarmament is based on a procedure under the Executive Council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which provides for an accelerated program aiming toward the elimination of Damascus’s chemical weapons by mid-2014, backed by a UN Security Council resolution taken on September 28. This is the first time that this form of collaboration has taken place so openly and with the cooperation of the Syrian government authorities.

The other, and much more important result of Russian diplomacy and Obama’s Syrian bluff (if that is what it was), is the enabling of US-Iran negotiations, which overshadow in geopolitical terms even the Syrian civil war itself. Initially talks would take place in the context of the Geneva II talks on Syria, which probably will take place in some form, even if many rebel groups have been very reluctant to participate.

Iran has itself offered to host a peace conference, involving all of Syria’s neighboring countries, including Turkey. Given that Israel also borders Syria, it would be interesting to see if such a conference would serve as an opportunity to invite Israel, although the likelihood of Israel sending delegates to talk peace to its arch-enemy Iran, seems remote.

The overbearing presence of Ayatollah Khamenei makes this unlikely, yet the new Iranian president has clearly sent a message to the world that Iran is renewing and that dialogue is possible. Syria has recently served as the vehicle of this transformation. This diplomatic renaissance has enabled Rouhani to bring Iran back to at least, the general direction of ’the good guys club’. Iran has dipped into this currency in courting UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi for themselves to attend the Geneva II, currently scheduled for 23d November – if it can be organized.

At any rate, the path to Geneva II, even if it fails, has already brought about the return of diplomacy even if stability and peace do not return to Syria. In a sense, ordinary Syrians have been put back in charge of their civil war and to them and the jihadists belongs the decision over their sovereignty and independence. The foreign ‘masters’, whether France, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United |States have been deprived of legitimacy to write Syria’s future unilaterally.

As for Geneva II, the chance of a failure to happen cannot be excluded yet. In theory, it should be held in November but the date is still unofficial, Nothing has guaranteed that the Conference will end a war whose toll already exceeds more than 100,000 deaths and several millions of refugees, that are de stabilising the region as a whole. One problem, certainly for the rebels, is that Bashar al-Assad can afford to be intransigent, emerging ‘undefeated’ from the averted confrontation with the United States. He has been cleared to continue to pursue the counter-insurgency through any means, so long as they are not chemical. Assad has also opened the doors of Syria’s arsenal to international inspectors but chemical disarmament does not stop the fighting. Assad has also granted many interviews, appearing affable and reasonable (as few dictators ever have). That impression is compounded by the fact that the disunited opposition forces appear as non-credible as ever, offering no solutions and certainly no prospects of democracy. In this context, Assad can freely discuss conditions needed to ensure the success of the peace conference. One of those is for the opposition forces to attend the conference in order to represent those Syrian people in revolt, rather than the foreign powers that support them.

He is also planning to run again in 2014 – not that any credible alternatives have come forth. Conversely, the resignation of the Assad regime is precisely the sine qua non condition that the opposition has set for its participation at Geneva II which condition appears to be an attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

The opposition sees the peace conference’s purpose as the resignation of Bashar al-Assad and his immediate lieutenants and the handover of all power to a transitional government in charge of organizing new elections.

If the opposition were to attend the meeting, goes their logic, it would not be to organize a democratic transition; rather, it would give Asad a ceasefire to ensure the survival of the regime.

The United States , Turkey , the Arab countries and the Europeans support the opposition and at least in their leaders’ public statements, they have reiterated that Bashar al -Assad and his collaborators should cease to play any role in the future of Syria, upon the formation of a transitional government. The opposition and the so-called "Friends of Syria" have found a common position; nevertheless, they have failed to consider Russia’s position; and Russia has a big voice in the matter. Moscow would sooner agree to Assad resigning and then only to present himself at the ensuing election as the architect of peace, and regain his status as the inevitable leader. Then overshadowing the whole situation, there is the bigger international prize of talks with Iran and a diplomatic means to stop its nuclear program. Meanwhile nineteen Islamic groups fighting to topple President Bashar Assad have rejected outright this US-Russian peace initiative for Syria: Geneva 2. Ultimately, that opposition could well keep Assad in power.

The elephant in the room is that there are two separate and incompatible opposition groups fighting the Syrian government army. The division is such that there has been severe fighting between their respective warriors, largely over the spoils of ‘liberated’ territory and control of border crossing points. The Islamists - al Qaeda affiliates and similar, seek to the exclusion of all others, one major goal. That Syria become a part of a Islamic Caliphate including Iraq and perhaps Lebanon, dedicated to the implementation of Sharia law. They hope to see Syria fall to Islamic jihad. As we comment elsewhere (see Libya) they may have a rival for that distinction.

In the past weeks, dozens of major rebel groups in all of Syria have declared that the pro-Western opposition umbrella, which brings together the National Coalition, had "failed", leaving only the extremists on the ground with the ‘power’. Probably a big majority of the jihadists are not Syrians, but foreigners from wherever the Islamists recruit, as Assad accurately claimed at the beginning of the civil war, and now including volunteers from Europe and North America.

Although it is a far from cohesive group in itself with different backers, it could be said that the Free Syrian Army is the revolution’s respectable side, given that their objective is to turn out an absolutist government of Alawites, a minority Islamic persuasion. Even if their representatives do attend the Peace Conference, they cannot stop the civil war because the jihadists care nothing for peace until they have defeated the ‘ Kafir’, the ungodly, and that would seem to be a long haul.

The National Coalition will meet Nov. 9 to decide whether to take part in peace talks, but stated emphatically that it will participate only if there are guarantees that Assad will step down. If that were agreed what point would there be for Assad or his people to even attend the meeting? They are after all winning this civil war, although they may not be able to completely defeat the assorted rebels and recapture all of the lost territory. It is to this end that the Islamists had fought with the FSA to secure a chunk of NE Syria, an enclave which would be their last redoubt, if they fail on the broader front.

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