The important thing about what’s happening in Syria is that so many things are happening simultaneously. The sheer number and weight of various diplomatic initiatives now in play indicate that politics, rather than fighting on the ground, will determine the outcome of what is a low-intensity civil war. This is the preferred situation, because an all-out military battle would see death and destruction without necessarily ending the standoff between government and opposition.
The dynamic diplomatic front that’s been activated offers a range of options that could bring about an eventual resolution of the conflict in Syria, probably – but not certainly – with a change in both the al-Assad family leadership and the top-heavy authoritarian state system. The collapse of efforts to press Syria at the United Nations Security Council, due to the Russian-Chinese veto, seems only to have enhanced the resolve of many Arab governments to explore other means to end the killings and perhaps move the country to a more representative and democratic system of government.
The latest Arab League and Gulf Co-operation Council meetings in Cairo have triggered a flurry of diplomatic and bilateral political activity that’s striking for the variety of its channels and actors. Three parallel tracks now seem to be operational.
The UN General Assembly debate, including the harsh verdict against the Syrian government’s actions by the UN Human Rights Council, serves to reveal a significant international desire to press Damascus to change its policy toward the mostly non-violent demonstrators. Simultaneously, the Arab League has proposed forming a joint Arab-UN peacekeeping force to stabilize the situation inside Syria, and appointing a UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria. The UN-Arab League combination is likely to have more clout than either organization on its own.
A Friends of Syria group of countries, set to meet in Tunisia on Feb. 24, will explore ways to press all sides in Syria to shift onto a political track to resolve the conflict. This could provide the mechanism for “legitimate” collective international action that was blocked by the Security Council vetoes.
Bilateral moves by Arab countries could open the way for other countries to join in. These moves include withdrawing ambassadors from Damascus and expelling Syrian ambassadors, increasing contacts with the various Syrian opposition groups, and giving the opposition political and matériel assistance (presumably Band-Aids as well as bazookas).
What’s most intriguing is that the four pivotal diplomatic players in these dynamics seem to be Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Tunisia, Qatar and the Arab League all playing important roles. The United States looms large in the background, and the Europeans are a diplomatic tale still being written.
The three-track level of activity, with numerous bilateral meetings going on alongside multilateral actions, suggests that new forms of pressure will continue to be applied to the rulers in Damascus, with obvious goals in mind: eroding the regime’s economic base, and strengthening the capacity of the non-violent demonstrators to persist and of the armed opposition to strike around the country.
The ultimate aims would be to demoralize the overstretched armed forces (look for more one-off attacks against them), enhance the credibility and legitimacy of a more unified opposition movement, and cause the Russians to see the futility of supporting a doomed regime, thereby hastening the shift to a political transition and a post-al-Assad Syria. The al-Assad family and their co-rulers will never go along with such a transition, unless they find themselves totally isolated domestically, regionally and globally – which is the aim of the three-pronged strategy.
The key variable in all this is the capacity of the Syrian people to withstand for many more months the pain and deaths they now suffer on a daily basis. If the government repeats its brutal Homs assault simultaneously in a dozen cities across the country, the opposition could be literally crushed. The trajectory of the past 10 months suggests otherwise, as regime attacks have only escalated the opposition’s scope and determination to resist, with a steady increase in Arab and international support for the opposition.
If the government lowers the intensity of its attacks and sieges of opposition areas, the Arab and international community would probably lose some of its enthusiasm to keep pressing for change. We’ll have answers to these questions by early summer, with diplomatic and economic levers now looming as the critical dynamics to watch.
Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of Beirut-based Daily Star, is director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.