Is Syria winning?

January 26, 2013

The following text is a political report on the global cold war in Syria and its impact on Lebanon. The report concludes that Damascus is not worried anymore because the political and military winds have changed direction.

Sami Kleib, As-Safir (Lebanon), translated by Rani Geha

The second anniversary of the Syrian crisis is less than two months away. The first time that US President Barack Obama called for the departure of his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad was on Aug. 18, 2011. That was one and a half years ago. Even earlier, on May 28, 2011, French President Nicolas Sarkozy demanded Assad’s departure. So have the Turks and the Arabs on many occasions. But the Syrian president remains.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently said that “Assad’s departure is impossible.” Ali Akbar Velayati, the international affairs advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader, said that “Assad is a red line.” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem later came out and asserted that those who insist on Assad’s departure are prolonging the war in Syria.

From that, one can conclude that the Russia-Iran-Syria axis has survived and may even achieve security and political gains. The question is now, why did this happen?

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In Moscow, Tehran, Damascus, and Beirut, many believe that what has happened in Syria represents a global cold war. In Damascus, one of the two sides will come out victorious — unless there is a major political settlement.

Those who visited Assad recently were surprised by how unworried he seemed. From his palace — which, contrary to rumor, he has never left — the president discussed the current situation as if the balance of power has turned. He said that his government will continue to solidify its presence even as the war drags on. He said that the battle is no longer between the government and the opposition, but rather between the state and “terrorists,” and that the fighting will continue until the latter is eliminated.

The president expressed full confidence in his regime and his army. He never doubted the commitment of his Russian ally at the international level or of his Iranian ally in the region. He cracked jokes even as the war is raging. He said in a reassuring tone, “I have said from the outset that the strategic alliance with the Russians does not change at every turn. Many thought that I was exaggerating.” That alliance began in early 2007, and it has strengthened and become the bulwark against any attempt to harass Syria from both inside and outside of the UN Security Council.

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Assad is not worried about the spread of the armed opposition in Syria. His analysis shows that his army can win many future battles. Syria’s geography has allowed the opposition media to portray the regime’s security structure as if it has nearly collapsed. Syrian demography does not allow the army to remain in the areas where it won a battle. Instead, the army kills a lot of gunmen, and then pulls back. Other gunmen move in to take their place. But Assad is confident that “the friendly environment for the rebels is about to radically change.” Many citizens have helped the army locate militant hideouts, and hundreds of gunmen have recently been killed with citizens help.

In the past few weeks, Assad’s optimism in front of his visitors was corroborated by several international and regional factors, notably:

1. There is genuine US concern about Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadis, which harms the “Western-approved” opposition. In addition, there is awareness that the Syrian army, which has suffered few defections in two years, is no longer likely to disintegrate. The same applies to the Syrian diplomatic corps, which has surprised Robert Ford, the former US ambassador to Damascus. He tried very hard to make a breakthrough in the Syrian political and security establishment. Starting in the second month of the Syrian crisis, he tried to persuade Alawite officers and political figures to defect. A few days ago, he bitterly said to one of his guests, “I do not know how Assad would leave. He may never leave. He does not want to leave.” The same thing is being said in Western circles, including at the French Foreign Ministry.

2. The jihadist movements are no joke. “The magic has turned onto the magician,” said a senior Syrian official. The Americans, and some Europeans, have been surprised by the effect of allowing European jihadis to enter Syria. From the Sinai to Iraq, Syria, Jordan and northern Lebanon, jihadism and al-Qaeda are growing in the Levant. As a result, the West is increasingly grateful about the Syrian armies operations against jihadis. The more jihadis the Syrian army kills, the lower the burden on the West.

3. The French involvement in Mali, the kidnapping of Westerners in Algeria and the failure to free the French hostage in Somalia have awakened the Western countries from their slumber. There has been extensive contacts in the past few days between Paris, Washington, London, and some Arab states in the hopes of speeding up measures against the jihadist tide. The French say that some Arab countries are responsible for promoting al-Qaeda-style jihadism. There have been accusations against those who armed al-Qaeda in Libya. In the next few days, an important book will be published in Paris exposing the Qatari role in a number of Arab countries and discussing Qatari influence on France and other countries. The book is being signed by Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, two prominent journalists and experts on the region. After France’s diplomatic and security blunder in West Africa, it is unlikely that France will get directly involved in the Syrian crisis for at least several months.

4. The Arab position has changed. Jordan’s King Abdullah II explicitly said to at least two people, Abdel Bari Atwan of pan-Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi and Nahed Hattar, the Jordanian writer expected to soon have a leftist political role in his country, that Assad will stay in place and that the balance of power is changing. Jordanian intelligence said something similar to Lebanese and Syrian intelligence. Behind-the-scenes contacts between Syria and Saudi Arabia have changed the relationship between them. Nothing major has come out of these efforts, but they are a good start. The talks are not with the official Saudi authorities, but many inside the Saudi government hold a different opinion about interfering in Syria. Damascus is mostly resentful of Qatar, although Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem often talks about Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Algerian, Iraqi, Lebanese, and Egyptian officials have relayed genuine Syrian frustration about Qatar’s insistence on arming the opposition.

5. An American-Russian understanding on many points regarding the Syrian crisis has caused a fundamental shift in the policy of the Obama administration. This understanding is primarily based on the Geneva Accord. There has to be a settlement between the Syrian regime and the opposition. Damascus is ready to reactivate Lakhdar Brahimi’s mission, but on its own terms. Moscow will never accept that Assad be pressured into leaving power. In recent weeks, Lavrov explicitly said to his European counterparts that Assad is still very popular in Syria and that this fact makes him eligible to run, and possibly succeed, in the upcoming elections. The Iranians have candidly told the Russians that forcing Assad to leave power is out of the question. Ali Akbar Velayati, who is very close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said that “Assad is a red line.” Those who visit Tehran hear a lot of resentful language against Qatar and its role, and there is a lot of blame on Turkey, too.

6. The Turkish role is declining despite Turkey’s continued statements against Assad. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan realizes the magnitude of the impasse. In Paris, there are rumors that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu may be relieved of his post. It seems that the Syrian regime has greatly improved its relationship with the Kurds. Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters are now standing against any Turkish move. Syrian security officials are very satisfied with the PKK. There is even talk of surprises at the border soon. A NATO official confirms that the Patriot missile batteries deployed in Turkey are not offensive but defensive. Ankara is now worried about its own security after Erdogan was the key advocate for Assad’s removal. Was the assassination of three Kurdish activists in Paris a coincidence?

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Those visiting Syria have heard about possible changes in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Some say that Saudi Arabia, which, along with the UAE and Kuwait, has waged a relentless media war on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia, is now preparing for the post-King Abdullah era. Washington is trying to influence the process of replacing the older generation of Saudi leaders with the younger generation. The Washington Post had an extensive story on the subject. The king’s health hasn’t helped either. There are rumors that Doha is also preparing for the next stage amid talk that the emir is in poor health.

Those who visit Damascus will hear a lot of opinions on all of those issues, but for the time being the regime’s most important objective remains its military option. The regime’s priority is to eradicate jihadis and al-Qaeda. Nobody hears much about the “moderate” opposition anymore. In the opinion of the Syrian leadership, the moderate opposition has lost a lot of support inside Syria. “They left open the stage to fighters who know nothing about reform, freedom, or democracy. And they did not take the proper stances at the proper time,” say many in the Syrian government.

Despite that, a political solution is still possible. Assad’s visitors say that every time he talks about reform he refers to his latest speech. He said that he presented an integrated plan during his speech at the opera house. He talked about the constitution, a referendum, and elections. These are fundamental points he agreed upon with the Russians. Moscow was pleased with his speech. President Vladimir Putin’s administration defended the speech from Western and Arab attacks. The Russian government went further and said that Assad’s speech was the most the Syrian government can offer, and that it is now the opposition’s turn to present its vision for a solution.

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Even more significant, the prospects of the ground battle are changing. There are new factors and military strategies. The army has learned from its mistakes. The army has gained more control over security breaches caused by corruption. Popular committees, which have been intensively training for two months, have been formed. An information and eavesdropping network has been installed (with great help from the Russians, which has surpassed all Western aid to the armed opposition). Self-protection measures in minority areas have been taken. It is said that the popular committees accomplishments have exceeded the army’s expectations.

All the above was accompanied by economic measures by Russia, Iran, Iraq, and other countries. It is rumored that a reconstruction deal including the oil industry has been struck with the Russians. That did not end the economic crisis, but the situation would have been much worse if these measures were not taken. The economy is a major concern, but Assad seems confident of the next steps. In the areas where things have settled, such as Homs, the citizens’ conditions have improved. There is hope that things will settle in Aleppo and that the city will avoid new battles. The situation of the refugees and displaced persons have made some people re-establish contacts with the regime.

How can Syria build on the progress made thus far?

With the continued improvement of the security situation on the ground, the opposition will start a series of meetings abroad. There is hope regarding the plans of the coordination committee headed by Haytham Manna in Geneva. Manna has stood firmly against militarizing the revolution and foreign intervention. He has met with more than 32 foreign ministers. Many would like to meet him these days, especially those from the Gulf. Manna will soon preside over a meeting in Geneva (the same meeting that was supposed to be held in St. Aegedo, Italy).

It is expected that the meeting will be more productive than the previous ones. Officials from the Syrian regime may participate (possibly from the Syrian parliament) as well as figures close to the Muslim Brotherhood. The meeting may be held under the auspices of the Russians and the Europeans, with Iranian support, in addition to being backed by some Gulf states that oppose a significant role for the Muslim Brotherhood. It is likely that political steps between the regime and the opposition will follow. Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are involved. Turkey will be forced to follow.

Moscow is using such meetings to tell Washington that there is only one way to stop the war in Syria: By applying the Geneva Agreement, transferring power to a government that includes all side, and preparing for elections — and that Assad cannot be prevented from participating in the elections.

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The choices are clear. Either that settlement is accepted and the war stops, and that includes stopping support for insurgents, or the war will go on. Nothing on the horizon points to the possibility that the balance of power may change unless the rebels succeed in killing Assad with Western assistance. This is why Moscow and Tehran said that Assad is a red line. It seems that for them, his presence guarantees the regime’s survival.

In the recent Egyptian-Saudi meetings, as well as during private communications among Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, the conviction is growing that there is no solution except a political solution that involves all parties, including Assad.

What about Lebanon?

Some Syrian officials like to remind us that international agreements, especially those with France, brought President Michel Suleiman to power, and that his positions are not surprising. Like Prime Minister Najib Mikati, he originally thought that the Syrian regime could fall. Syrian officials say that the Lebanese always make the mistake of believing the West’s predictions for regional changes. For Damascus, Mikati is still better than Suleiman, but there are big questions. The Syrians are neither angry nor happy with Lebanese officials, but rather very disappointed, especially because they allowed arms smuggling and criticized the Syrian ambassador. “The Syrian crisis allowed us to discover who our true friends are,” said a Syrian official. “We will never forget that lesson.”

The Syrian officials also like to note that the visit by the head of the Struggle Front parliamentary bloc Walid Jumblatt to Russia indicated that he wants the major powers to change their policies. The Syrians say that Jumblatt understands that the Syrian crisis is not going the way he wants. They point out Lebanese divisions over the election law with a smile, and note the deadlines that former Prime Minister Saad Hariri had set for his return to Lebanon and was unable to meet. They are confident that his return will be the result of a Syrian understanding with Saudi Arabia, but this will not happen soon.

One Syrian official said that Syrian election laws are undoubtedly much more advanced than the Lebanese 1960 election law. They say that “Damascus will not forget who stood by its side and will not forget who contributed to the bloodshed.” Can that be translated into reality? There are reports that Lebanese figures who oppose Assad have tried to contact him in the past two months. All the above goes against what a senior Lebanese security official said: that the Syrian regime will fall in two months, just as Obama, Sarkozy, and Erdogan had once predicted.

So once again, it appears that the interests of powerful countries is put above the peoples’ suffering, especially if they are Arabs. As we wait for a settlement, the war will go on.


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