Syria an Arena for Proxy Wars and International Trade-offs

In-depth analysis of the interview given by Lakhdar Brahimi, Joint United Nations and Arab League Envoy to Syria, to Al-Hayat on Wednesday indicates that the only means to save Syria from "the wound festering", as well as from fragmentation and disintegration, resides in an American-Russian agreement that would lead to consensus at the Security Council over the principle and the means of salvation. US Vice President Joe Biden will be meeting over the weekend with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Munich, while US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will be heading to Moscow next month to discuss the issue of starting a new round of negotiations over the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), with the aim of embarking on a "new beginning" to renew this treaty, as well as relations between the United States and Russia. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week that the stances taken by the two countries remain far apart: "the US has one opinion and the Russian Federation, unfortunately, has a different opinion", because "there are no easy solutions in terms of anti-missile defense". The relationship between American-Russian negotiations over the missile defense shield and a "new" START treaty is profoundly connected to Syria's future.

Jordanian Monarch King Abdullah II warned - from Davos as well - that "anyone who says that [the] regime [in Damascus] has got weeks to live really doesn't know the reality on the ground", expecting "a strong showing [by the regime's military forces] for at least the first half of 2013". He also warned of the increased activity of Al-Qaeda in Syria as the fighting persists, saying that "the new Taliban that we are going to have to deal with will be in Syria", adding that Syria today faces the danger of either "implosion" or "fragmentation". The question that is being raised at international forums goes into the core of the role played by the United States and Russia in the fate of the de-facto fragmentation and disintegration of Syria, either because they are both in effect adopting a policy of attrition and exhaustion (Moscow towards Jihadists, and Washington towards the regime in Damascus and those who support it, in addition to Jihadists), or as a result of them holding Syria hostage to their bilateral relationship until further notice.

It is clear that Lakhdar Brahimi, entrusted by the international community and the Arabs to look for political solutions to the Syrian predicament, has reached the conclusion that neither regional powers nor Syrian parties have the ability to settle the Syrian issue one way or another, neither militarily nor politically. He said, "There is no other arena now to deal with this issue and seek the salvation of Syria except through the Security Council", where there is "a peephole of hope, especially in light of the three meetings I held with the Americans and Russians, and in light of yesterday's meeting [January 29] with the Security Council and its five permanent members [the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France]". What is striking in his assessment of the Russian issue is that Brahimi has reached the conclusion that there was no way to apply the 6+2 model, which he had adopted when negotiating and mediating in the Afghan issue. That model had stressed the necessary partnership of Afghanistan's neighbors with the Afghan interior in looking for a solution, and in fact allowed the United States and Iran to communicate directly for the first time through the 6+2 meetings.

He went on to say that "the brothers in Syria are unable to talk and resolve their problems themselves. If this were possible, it would be the best option. If the countries of the region were able to help, this would be a good option as well but they are all apparently unable to reach a solution [as] the role that the countries of the region have defined for themselves has not helped to reach [one]". This is why Brahimi has decided to knock at the door of the Security Council, a door which "we are trying to pry open, but so far remains closed". American-Russian approval of Brahimi taking what they agreed on in their tripartite meeting to the five permanent members of the Security Council in a sexpartite meeting for the first time will perhaps lead to a stance being issued by the Security Council - then "all concerned parties will be more attentive to the efforts that are being made".

This "peephole" Brahimi spoke of lies in Russia slowly advancing towards putting an end to its "constructive ambiguity" regarding the role to be played by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the process of political transition in Syria. It also lies in the United States slowly advancing towards neutralizing the Assad knot in such a way as not to make his stepping down represent a precondition from the very start of negotiations. The "peephole" of which the features have become clearer this week is the open talk of removing all ambiguity on the issue of Assad's role in the transitional formal body or "the government that is to be formed [...] to exercise full powers in every sense of the word", to use Brahimi's own words. To put it in clearer terms, an American-Russian understanding has been reached over Bashar Al-Assad having no role to play in the transitional government that would be the alternative to his own, "and this definition must be provided by the Security Council" through a formal decision that would move such an understanding from being one reached in the background at a bilateral level to one openly reached by the Security Council in its entirety.

The alternative ambiguity, so to speak, which perhaps still forms what is currently referred to as "the Assad complex", resides in whether the US Administration is prepared to leap over its stances calling for Assad to step down or be removed, at least as a prelude or as part of the "peephole" that would make Russia willing to trade off removing all ambiguity regarding the role played by Assad in the transitional government for increasing the ambiguity surrounding the role Assad would play in the future of Syria. Here it seems that disagreements persist, and this is why no agreement has yet been reached over issuing a Security Council resolution that would resolve this "knot". Indeed, advance towards resolving it has been slow, perhaps for reasons connected to the same Syrian issue or for reasons connected to larger bilateral trade-offs.

Another development that took place this week was yet another slow advance towards compelling the Security Council to behave in accordance with the responsibilities ascribed to it of preserving world peace and security, instead of dwelling in frustration and hiding behind the blame laid on others. Russia and China have prevented the Security Council, by making use of the dual veto three times, from adopting any resolution that would put pressure on the regime in Damascus and on President Bashar Al-Assad. The United States, and with it Britain and France to a lesser extent, has found in the stances taken by Russia and China an excuse to lay the blame on them and to shame them in order to cover up Washington's own hesitancy, neglect and reluctance to engage in the Syrian issue. The meeting of the ambassadors of the five countries with Brahimi for the first time represents another "peephole" in the slow advance towards issuing a Security Council resolution that would reflect, upon being issued, a major shift in the balance of political versus military solutions. Indeed, if a serious and firm resolution - which Western countries wish it to be binding under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and Russia refuses to have it issued as such - were to be issued, this would perhaps be indicative of the policy of mutual attrition and exhaustion having been suspended.

Jihadists perhaps represent the common denominator between the policies of the United States and Russia in Syria, based on the path of attrition and exhaustion. Yet the regime in Damascus, in addition to Iran, which is playing a direct role in supporting the regime, represents the point of discrepancy and disagreement between the United States and Russia in the policy of attrition and exhaustion. Thus, Washington may seek to increase mutual attrition and exhaustion between Jihadists on the one hand and the regime and Tehran on the other, while Moscow seeks to focus absolutely on the attrition and exhaustion of Jihadists - because Islamic extremism represents from its point view a domestic issue, not just a vision for Syria. Russia fears the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, because it will bring Jihadists back to its neighborhood, and will represent a starting point for them to spread towards the five Muslim republics that surround it, in addition to affecting Muslim minorities inside Russia itself. Yet Moscow also considers that the withdrawal of North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) forces from Afghanistan will lead to a predicament for the United States greater than its own, because Pakistan will represent the prime destination for the migration of Jihadists or their expansion beyond Afghanistan's borders. This issue in fact represents yet another important aspect of the bilateral talks taking place between the United States and Russia, which are broader and more far-reaching than the Syrian issue.

The Russian leadership's complex regarding Islamists has led it to become so possessed by fear as to be blinded to the repercussions of its policy towards Syria over the sources of its concern. The American leadership's complex regarding the necessity of withdrawing has led it to become so obsessed as to be blinded to the repercussions of Assad stepping down over what is a priority for the United States - regardless of whether one calls it "the war on terror" or the fight against "Islamic extremism". In Syria today are erupting both the complex of the United States and that of Russia, their façade being the Assad knot. There are those who believe that there is no way to intervene militarily in Syria to stop the bleeding, the festering wound, fragmentation, disintegration and the country being torn apart by a civil war that would reach beyond Syria's borders, if it were to persist.

The model of intervening without a mandate from the Security Council, in a manner similar to the Kosovo model or otherwise, looms on the very distant horizon, yet is present in everyone's mind - those who fear it as well as those who wish for it. There is also the possibility for the issue to develop towards a fundamental tearing up of Syria, to the extent of tomorrow's opposition - after the ruling regime would have turned into an opposition movement - becoming a nightmare of a different kind, as it would be armed par excellence, infinitely more dangerous, and the greatest contributor to the development of division and fragmentation.

Lakhdar Brahimi is right in saying "let us not talk about where the Syrian regime or the President are headed, and instead talk about history. Water cannot turn back and flow upwards. What is done is done. Syria tomorrow will be different from Syria today, and Syria next year will be a different Syria from the one it was two years ago". He is right in saying "the change required must be real, and the time for patching things up is over". And he is right to say that "any government can lead this change [in Syria and in the Arab region], and if it does not, it will be passed over".

This month will mark the passage of two years since the train of demanding the change required in the Arab region reached Syria. Demanding reform and change began with peaceful demonstrations, which were confronted by being dealt with at the security level at the hands of Syrian authorities. Thus the Syrian government has been passed over, through decisions it issued itself that resulted in the Afghanization of Syria - with everything Afghanization means in terms of turning Syria into an arena for proxy wars and for regional and international trade-offs.