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Hichem Karoui: Pawns on Syrian chessboard
December 09, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

According to some reports, the undisclosed object of Thursday’s meeting in Dublin between the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton and the Russian Foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, was to pave the way for the creation of a “protected zone” in Northern Syria, in the territories held by the insurgents. On the same day, Nato advanced its plan to place Patriot missiles and troops along Syria’s border with Turkey to protect against potential attacks.

The fact that Thursday’s meeting followed that of Russian President Vladimir Putin with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, made some observers speculate that Russia might be already preparing the post-Assad period, as the fall of the regime is now estimated to occur within weeks, not months. It is also believed that the Russians assess the ability of Assad to survive the war as null. If they did not yet officially dump him, it is likely because they are desperate about ensuring the continuation of influence in Syria after his downfall.

The change in Russia’s position is gradual. However, the real battle the Russians fight is today with time. They are facing a dilemma, and the faster they resolve it the better for them. They have to find a good reason that may explain to their people and to the world why they dump Assad. The Americans may help them find it, or not, depending on their own reckoning of the post-Assad period, their participation and their expectations. For instance, the Russians say now, “We don’t support Bashar Al Assad — he’s normal for this region... But the understanding that radical Islamism is not better than authoritarian leaders is, in Russia, absolutely clear.”(Yevgeny Satanovsky, Director of the Moscow Institute for Middle Eastern Studies.)

So, this is the pretext that may serve in a dual capacity, somehow like some high-tech products used for civil and military objectives: the idea that Islamism may grip Syria after the downfall of Assad is broadly shared. There is a good deal of common sense in the assumption that the West refrained from intervening in Syria to help the revolution, despite the awful massacres, because nobody has a plan for the aftermath and the Syrian Islamists are believed to be much more organised than the rest of the secular opposition. The “wait and see” stance the US and its allies took in this case was perceived by many people in the Syrian opposition, as a “plot to divide and destroy Syria, so that it would represent no threat to Israel, in the future.”

Actually, the passivity of the West before the mass killing of the Syrian people may be an “opportunity offered” to the secular opposition — upon a cold political reckoning — to organise and fortify itself, so to represent a counter-weight to the Islamists, in the post-Assad era. Thus, the common ground that could connect Russia to the West may be their dislike of a future Islamist Syria. Who would “buy” it? At the same time, this may offer Moscow a good reason to “cooperate” with the West, if the West, through its connections in the Syrian opposition, could guarantee “safety and continuation” for the Russian interests.

Problem: you cannot give what you don’t have. Neither the West, nor the Syrian opposition could guarantee any foreign interests in the post-Assad era, for a simple reason: to the victor belong the spoils. Those who have been fighting Assad since more than twenty-one months may dislike the idea of giving Russia (for them, a declared enemy) any guarantee. The political and diplomatic theatre is always open to all kinds of surprises, but this is a military battle. The victory over the Syrian regime is likely to be on the military ground. Russia is desperate to find an “honourable” exit from its unfortunate wandering with Assad. Yet, who can offer Russia such a solution today? At a certain time, the Russians refused to listen to the demands of the opposition and instead, required a humiliating endeavour. They gave Assad all latitude for a wild rampage and asked the opposition practically to kneel down and accept talks with him. They were deaf and blind not only to the bloodbaths (they did more in Chechnya), but even to their own interests. Maybe they thought they could save Assad from a revolution just in betting on a civil war.

Mrs Clinton recently said she is afraid that the despair of Assad pushes him to use chemical weapons. It would be wise to see also Moscow despair. In the first week of December, we read reports about Russia supplying Bastion coastal missile systems with Yakhont cruise missiles to Syria under a contract signed in 2007. Why did Moscow wait all those years and lastly decided to give Assad these weapons? The answer is: Moscow is buying time. Putin has no illusion about the future of Assad, but he needs to negotiate for the future of Russian interests in Syria and the region. That is the meaning of the double meeting of Lavrov (with Erdogan and Clinton).

The point is the delivery of the weapons systems was just the first part of the process, for according to some reports, “more time is needed to complete Syrian personnel training.” The missile system is expected to “enable Syria to protect its entire coast from a possible seaborne attack.”

Moreover, one day before the Nato announced the plan of displaying the Patriot missiles and troops, two Russian warships docked at a naval base in Syria, Tartus, Russia’s only remaining international military base since the Soviet Union collapsed.

 No wonder that on the same day before her scheduled meeting with Mr. Lavrov, Mrs Clinton issued a warning about a new effort by oppressive governments to “re-Sovietise” much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. She particularly lamented a broader move by Russia and neighbouring governments to work against human rights and democratic advancement.

Thus, every party is pushing its pawns on the Syrian chessboard today. The Pentagon has told the Obama administration that any military effort to seize Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons would require upward of 75,000 troops, amid increasing concern that the militant group Hezbollah has, reportedly, set up small training camps close to some of the chemical weapons depots.

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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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