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  • Syria Faces a New, Long-Term Phase
    Fri, 23 December 2011
    Walid Choucair

    The mission of Arab League observers in Syria opens up a new phase of that country’s crisis, since the period prior to the work of this team will not resemble the period to come afterward.

    One can say that the Syrian leadership’s decision to accept the Arab League initiative, despite the doubts about the chance of its success, moves the crisis in the direction of a new phase of searching for solutions. This could take a short or a long period of time, depending on the movement in the domestic struggle underway between the regime and its opponents in the street, and among members of the political class seeking change. It is the first time in decades in which the leadership in Syria will not be a chief player in the taking of Arab decisions, because it has become the subject of these decisions; it has moved from being a decision-maker to being a country unable to control its domestic situation without Arab sponsorship, which enjoys international support from countries that have been unable to find a common approach to dealing with the Syrian situation in the United Nations Security Council. The Arab League initiative has received western (American-European) and Turkish support, as well as that of Russia and China, which opposed sending the matter to the Security Council. Tehran has sufficed by supporting what Syria decided in responding to the protocol for Arab cooperation, without declaring its support for the Arab League initiative, as Moscow did.

    Iran is advocating regional supervision for the Syrian crisis, to transcend the Arab League so that it can be a partner in the Arab “tutelage” over the Syria crisis, unlike Turkey. For its part, Ankara took part in Arab League meetings and the discussions over sending observers to Syria, and the drafting of the protocol governing this cooperation. It then participated in the decision to impose sanctions on Damascus, and was the first to implement them. The Iranian leadership, meanwhile, quickly compensated Damascus for these sanctions through economic, financial and customs-related moves.

    This means the Arab League initiative marks a new phase, which will comprise regional and international negotiations over how to deal with the situation in Syria. The first phase of this effort could succeed, as Arab observers deploy and stop the killing by the regime (since it has the power to foil this phase as well). However, the success of the Arab League mission would pose a challenge for the regime and the opposition, in terms of the ability of each to shore up its popularity in the street, as each deploys its supporters in public squares. This challenge has prompted many to talk about another scenario, namely relying on the Yemeni model of overseeing a transfer of power. For Syria, the Yemen model means merely that regional and international parties have come to believe it necessary to see a transfer of power in Damascus, but in gradual fashion. If President Bashar Assad steps down, this will take time and come amid a series of successive steps, which would naturally be resisted by the Syrian leadership, while foreign parties would seek to delay this as much as possible. Prolonging the life of the regime would give Moscow and Tehran the opportunity to negotiate with other forces seeking to topple the regime. Russia and Iran are the countries that have protected the regime up to now, and each has its issues with the camp trying to change the regime.

    It is no coincidence that the head of Iranian intelligence, during a visit to Saudi Arabia a few weeks ago, broached the issues of Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and security in the Gulf, according to media reports. Meanwhile, the climate in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf does not appear ripe to see deal-making with Iran at this level, while the region continues to experience changes. Moscow, for its part, is worrying about its economic gains in the region, beginning with its ties with Riyadh, as well as pending strategic issues between it and the United States, most importantly the deployment of a missile shield in Europe.

    On the domestic front, if the new phase in Syria moves the country in the direction of the Yemen model, we should remember that this saw President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down in exchange for the survival of the army and security bodies, as a prelude to their restructuring, and a process of power-sharing between political parties and the country’s tribes, while awaiting a round of elections. In Syria, seeing Assad remain in power until the 2014 presidential elections is on the table, while the regime’s security bodies would be dismantled and the Baath’s grip on political life, the army, universities and educational institutions would be dismantled (the Constitution guarantees this control by the Baath), while the army would remain in place, so that the experience of Iraq is not repeated. This is currently being rejected by the leadership in Syria, and not just Assad alone.

    All of this renders the new phase of negotiation among elements of the domestic scene in Syria, and foreign parties, a long-term affair, unlike what some people believe.

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