Let’s end the empty talk about Syria

June 5, 2012

In every conflict, there are clarifying moments of horror, episodes that cast into stark relief the reality of the forces at work and the complex obstacles to peace. The massacre of Al Houla, where more than a hundred civilians were murdered with savage intimacy, is such a moment in the Syria crisis – but not for the reason that you may think. It will not trigger an air war or an invasion; it will not lead to the forcible removal of the Assad regime by Western troops; and it will not tip the balance of choices among the regime’s supporters. Syria has now entered a cavern of civil conflict from which there is only the slightest of hope of escape – and achieving it requires a far more honest reckoning with the realities of power, and the West’s strategic priorities, than is currently on display in the Western debate over intervention in that country.

The Assad regime is a predatory, deeply illegitimate entity that will stop at nothing to retain power. It needs to go, one way or the other, sooner rather than later. To say this, however, is the easy part. There is little moral or strategic accomplishment in such a declaration – though you’d imagine otherwise from the bombast and bluster with which the end of the regime has been urged by Western politicians, diplomats and commentators. Far more difficult – and therefore carefully and comprehensively dodged by the self-appointed avatars of Western conscience – is constructing a credible way to transition power in Damascus to a broad-based government in the absence of the use of force.

From the criticism of Kofi Annan’s mission expressed by some commentators – and the damning with faint and cowardly praise heard from the very Security Council members who pleaded with him to take on the role as envoy – you’d imagine that the former United Nations Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Prize winner is the only thing that stands in the way of a blossoming democracy in Damascus. The truth is almost certainly the opposite. When the Security Council went to Annan 14 weeks ago and asked him to set aside his philanthropic activities in Africa to take on this perilous mission, nearly a year had gone by with the world condemning the crackdown in Syria – all to no effect. The world, including the United States, was out of options – and out of ideas – when it turned to Annan to create a process that would seek an end to the killing in Syria.

What Annan did by creating his six-point plan was, in reality, to pave the path for Assad’s exit. Either, on the one hand, Assad would be forced by intense, creative diplomatic pressure backing Annan’s diplomacy to accept and implement the six-point plan – and in that case, the only logical conclusion to a proposal that calls for a broad-based rule would be a new government in which Assad, by definition, would have no place. Or, on the other hand, Assad would maneuver and manipulate his way around the plan’s demands, and thereby unleash the kind of sectarian fighting that his minority clan will win only until the day it loses, and then gets destroyed. So far, both sides have played their predictable roles: Western powers unwilling to think beyond conventional ideas in their attempts to apply material pressure on the regime; and Assad, dogged and deeply delusional, maintaining his fantasy of an elected government in Damascus besieged by a jihadist-Western conspiracy.

If Assad is unlikely to change his stripes, it is high time for the West to engage the conflict on terms that reflect the complex requirements of a successful removal of Bashar al-Assad from power. What Assad recognizes, first of all, is that there is zero appetite in Western capitals, or the Middle East, for an armed intervention in Syria of the kind we saw in Iraq or Libya. He knows that Russia will continue to block the legal foundation for enforcement action in the Security Council as long as he’s offering them a better deal than the West is prepared to do. And he understands that as long as the West looks to the external opposition for coherent leadership of the transition he can sleep easy in his bed.

To achieve the fundamental aims of the international community in Syria – an end to the bloodshed and a transition to a broad-based, legitimate government – the West will have to reverse its approach on all three fronts. On the matter of military intervention, empty talk that does little to frighten Assad – and a great deal to alienate critical members of the Security Council, such as Russia and China – needs to stop. To shift its position, a Russian state that has little love for Assad and greatly fears the salafi-jihadist aftermath of a Syrian civil war requires genuine engagement on its core interests: stability in Syria and a say in the country’s future commensurate with the West’s. Finally, the external opposition has to be understood as incapable of achieving the organizational coherence or domestic legitimacy to lead the transition.

The answer, if there is one short of all-out war, is to focus on the pressure points at the top of the Alawite security structures, whose calculation of their balance of interests has not been sufficiently altered by the diplomacy of the past 14 months. Beneath the surface image of a brutally successful regime set on prosecuting a war on its people, there is in fact a highly dynamic situation, with fluid shifts in power within the country and among interests outside, making this a moment of opportunity. Rather than focusing on a transition process in the hands of the opposition, all efforts must now center on bringing the Russians along to create a united international message to the Alawite elites: Distance yourselves from Assad and his immediate circle of henchmen and you will be part of a transition that keeps the army, and other Alawite centers of power, at the table in the design of the new, multi-party, governance of Syria.

If the Annan plan “fails,” or “has failed,” as pundits are falling over themselves to declare, it will be because the Security Council powers, and the United States in particular, did not will its success. He is their envoy, appointed to carry out their mandate, and no ruler is better placed than Assad to call a Western bluff when he sees it. The pillars of his rule – those whose betrayal is the only sure path to Assad’s speedy end – will know when Annan’s diplomacy is backed by a united council determined to effect a change at the top. There are, in other words, today two ways to see the end of the Assad regime: either by giving the Annan mission the backing it needs to make clear to the people around Assad that their survival is incompatible with their leader’s continued hold on power; or by way of a vicious civil war that will see many more Houlas yet before Syria’s people have the prospect of living without fear in their own homes.

Diplomacy, more often than we’d wish, is a matter of limited, available alternatives. For Syria, there is no deus ex machina, no intervention force waiting to provide a clean removal of the regime in Damascus with the simplicity or speed than anyone would like. This is, at heart, a profoundly Syrian conflict of power and survival – it started in the streets and alleys of Syria, and it will end there. The real tipping point in Syria still awaits – the day when a small group of men around Assad’s command center look each other in the eye and conclude that a bullet to his head is the only way to save their own. What remains is one last chance to avoid an all-out civil war whose consequences are unpredictable except in one respect: that we will all look back on this time and ask ourselves why more wasn’t done to support and sustain the one diplomatic strategy designed to shift the elite’s allegiances, and negotiate the transition away from Assad’s ruinous rule to a new, legitimate, government in Syria.

PHOTO: Anti-government protesters hold signs as part of a funeral procession for Yaser Raqieh, whom protesters say was killed by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, near Hama, June 5, 2012. REUTERS/Handout


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Let the reptiles devour each other for we have no assurance that the opposition is any better.

Posted by pjancu | Report as abusive

If you would change name from Syria to S. Arabia and Assad with King Saud, article would be tottaly different, wouldnt it? There is no proof that Syrian army killed those civilians, you just take it for granted. Why do you lie to your readers? Who is opposition anyway? Those guys sitting in London, or those guys that are suplied with money and weapons from regimes that are far more worse than Asad … Qatar, Kings… You guys are creating another Al Qaida and it will all come back to you… i guess if you have wrote in the times of cold war, al qaida would be freedom fighters. You should read some history…

Posted by ajrolaf | Report as abusive

It is very difficult for any American based commentator to speak of a “broad based” government with any credibility. Let the USA establish its own “broad based” government before it preaches to others.

While we once did have a broad based government, we now have what for all practical purposes is an aristocracy. And we have the economic decline to be expected from such systems, with aristocrats at one end of the spectrum and peasants at the other, with few in between, and no peasants with political power either. Now we just need a President for Life.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

There’s a lot of wringing of hands worldwide but the fact is the protests hit with criminal retaliations by Assad has degenerated into a civil war. What sympathetic nations should do is provide the necessary arms and equipment to the opposition to defend themselves and force Assad’s “elite” into turning on him Iran is providing Assad with full backing. Should we do no less for the opposition?

Posted by act1 | Report as abusive

So many things

The UN is totally worthless, always has been and always will be, especially the Security Council. It is one of the biggest frauds perpetrated on the world’s population.

Why is it the “West” should take action? What about the other parts of the world?

If the any individual or nation really wants to do something constructive, they should attack Iran. Two birds with one stone: eliminate the threat from Iran and cut off the weapons flow to Syria.

More, but will keep it relatively short.

Censorship is evil.

Posted by ALLSOLUTIONS | Report as abusive

It is obvious Mr. Mousavizadeh has been drinking too much of the west’s coolaid. I wonder if it is because he is Iranian and ashamed of his own people?

Mr. Mousavizadeh, the reality is that Russia and China will NEVER go along with regime change because in the case of Syria, they have always been allied to Russia and China with minimal relations with the West. So any change of government would be a lose lose situation for Russia. These two countries are also tired of Western interventions.

My advice to the West on the Middle East, LEAVE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

“in the design of the new, multi-party, governance of Syria.”

For multi-party governance, nobody beats Afghanistan with over 150 political parties. That should waste a lot of Afghan man-hours in useless arguing. They will wrap themselves up in so much political process they won’t be able to a do a thing but take graft.

I don’t know why you complain about “self-appointed Avatars” of peace when the self-appointed avatars of war seem to do a hell of a lot of damage, are hardly accountable for any of the deaths they cause, and can’t get enough over billed hours for their self-styled service and devotion.

Why is the author so concerned? The continued deaths due to daily bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t seem to be of much interest to you so why do civilian casualties in Syria (whoever is actually responsible for them) bother you in the least? There care no totals of the dead in Iraq any more? I haven’t tried to do that myself but from the articles I’ve seen, it is well over a few hundred this year alone. For the past two or three it could well be over a thousand.

As Rumsfeld said – “Shit happens”, continues to happen and can always be reminded to happen if it ever takes a breath. It doesn’t need your help.

You can tell the US is loosing it’s mind when there are so many comments that would like to see the end of the UN. The US doesn’t seem to have much more success at humanitarian work or the unglamorous work of building pan-global treaties. And if its record with forging long lasting multi-country alliances is any indication, it wouldn’t have much success at them either. The “coalition of the willing” became unwilling years ago, don’t you recall?

Foreign intervention can’t promise the Syrians anything more than more turmoil. If it fails the concerned countries will look elsewhere for prime causes.

BTW – Something that has not been mentioned about Iran since I started reading this site in 2004. The Cubans have their US based expats that want revenge on Castro, the Iraqi’s had their expat contingents lobbying Washington during the run up to invasion (remember Chalabi who seemed to appear out of nowhere) and the Israeli’s have their perpetual busy bodies trying to train US guns on their enemies.

Iran must have them too in the form of exiles of the Shah’s government who had to flee. Many came here. They want their wealth and position back, no doubt, and yet no one ever mentions them? That’s deep cover for sure.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

By any honest body count, the butchers of Fallujah and sponsors of the butchers of Sabra and Shatila, Gaza and Lebanon are morally culpable for the deaths of far more men, women and children than all the petty Arab dictators combined so their crocodile tears now for the people of Syria are nothing more than depraved hypocrisy.

Posted by politbureau | Report as abusive

They were professional mercenary soldiers parachuting from across the border in Israel. They are of North African nationality, and were also used in the assassination of Muammar Gaddafi when he surrendered to opposition troops.

These guys are very professional, very dedicated and on big contracts to carry out high priority targets. The method of operation usually involves mixing with the rag-tag opposition groups that are temporarily funded and armed.

Israel is 100% behind the operations being carried out in North Africa and Syria and tacitly being funded by the CIA.

So Mr Mousavizadeh, you just keep writing your column for your next paycheck, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.


Posted by Rob111 | Report as abusive