Syria: Is It Still About Assad's Fall?

The United States and the European governments have vehemently repeated that Bashar al Assad must step down. Can his departure stabilize Syria and stop the bloodshed?

The views are more and more divided. The crisis in Syria is dramatically escalating. The conflict is no longer about a democratic movement against a dictatorship, and it is not only just a civil war. Worse than that, Syria has turned into the theater of a proxy war where foreign forces feed groups on the ground to defend their own interests.

On one side, the Alawite (a branch of Shia Islam) power in place that has lost its legitimacy is backed by Iran and Russia. The other side is composed of Sunni opponents who are armed mainly by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The last few weeks have showed that the more weapons smuggled into Syria, the higher the death toll is.

In the West, The United States and the European governments have made it clear that there is nothing to negotiate with Bashar al Assad and, as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius puts it, Bashar must get lost. Following a French initiative, the European Union has recognized the Syrian National Coalition they want to put in place. However, this coalition remains divided, though Washington and European governments continue their effort to organize and fund it in order to replace Assad.

This is not the vision of the current UN special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who has been talking with all the regional concerned stakeholders (Syria, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Russia and also Egypt) about implementing the first step -- what he says is the "urgent need to stop the bloodshed." Just like his predecessor Kofi Annan, who criticized "the increasing militarization on the ground and the lack of unanimity in the Security Council" when he resigned, Brahimi has blamed the Security Council for the same reasons, saying that the elements for a possible peace plan "cannot be put together until the (Security) Council has come together and is ready to adopt a resolution that will be the basis for a political process."

The Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon also advocates for a diplomatic and political transition. His strategy is based on a ceasefire and he rejects the idea of arming both sides. Recently, he called "on those who have influence over any side in Syria to exert it to promote a political solution, and empower political leaders, not armed groups or the regime's military."

There are groups that fear the fall of Assad. The Christian Syrians fear that a radical Islamist power would replace the 'secular dictatorship' of the Assad regime and remove individual freedoms (especially for women). To this end, Pope Benedict XVI, recently on a visit to Lebanon, called for an end to all arms supplies to Syria and a peaceful solution through dialogue.

For the same reasons, Israel also fears the uncertainty that the fall of Assad would bring. Although there are tensions between Tel Aviv and Damascus -- including on the annexation of the Golan Heights -- the Syrian border with Israel has remained relatively stable compared to the Israeli-Lebanese border. This explains why the Israeli Government remains silent on Syria. For example, during his address to the United Nations General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mentioned the word "Syrian" only once (to criticize the Iranian support) against 55 times for the word "Iran " (or "Iranian").

As for Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, he is among the leaders who favor a political transition. Though he has strongly spoken out against Assad, he announced that he was hostile to any foreign military intervention in Syria and advocates for a solution within a regional framework.

Earlier this summer, Vali Nasr, former special adviser to the White House and now Dean of the SAIS of Johns Hopkins University explained on Australia Network News that "the rebels are not democrats, they are too fractured. This is an uprising that is becoming increasingly bloody. It is now essentially a sectarian war between a minority Alawite regime and its Christian and Kurdish allies, and the majority Sunnis".

Nasr already argued that the conflict "is no longer about democracy, and a liberal democracy does not emerge in these kinds of circumstances of violence and fratricide."

He compares a possible fall of Assad to the situation of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2005 where "very quickly al Qaeda began to recruit among Iraqis and then sent Saudis, Egyptians, Syrians to come to Iraq to serve as suicide bombers and take over territories and confront U.S. forces and they became a major muscle within the insurgency".

Today, we can clearly see this picture in Syria and the current situation confirms the words of Nasr, who warned months ago, "the more the control of the Assad regime erodes, the more you are going to have opportunities in which varieties of forms of illegal activities, from drug lords to criminal to mafia types and to al Qaeda, begin to finding the ability to taking over towns, villages and neighborhoods to operate at will because there is not going to be any police or military to push them out."

What is happening in Syria is no longer about a democratic movement against a dictatorship, nor is it simply a civil war between two camps. Syria has become the theater of a proxy war which is spilling over to its neighbors. Consequently, to focus only on the departure of President Bashar al Assad is a strategy doomed to failure because it will not solve the conflict. The crisis is spreading far beyond the person of Bashar al Assad. Demanding the departure of the dictator can only be viewed as an attempt to advance the West's geostrategic and economic interests, namely isolating Iran, securing Western energy supply policies and competing with Russia, and bolstering Arab Gulf allies; what it will not achieve is a lasting ceasefire to stop the bloodshed and a transition to a brighter political future for the Syrian people.

Dean Vali Nasr interviewed on Australia Network News this summer.