Diplomacy has failed Syria and the Syrian people. The latest chapter in this sorry saga was the Russian Security Council veto last week of further sanctions on the Assad regime. It dashed any hope that the Russians might finally decide to play ball and help with Assad’s departure. The Chinese who never want to appear offside by themselves were all to happy to hide behind Putin’s resounding Nyet.
The Russians were also intent on hammering the final nail into the coffin of the UN observer mission in Syria by refusing a further extension to its mandate. They reluctantly agreed to extend it for another 30 days at a meeting of the Security Council late Friday.
The stalwart efforts of former UN Secretary General Kofin Annan to broker some kind of negotiated political transition with Assad’s opponents have been an abysmal failure. His was mission impossible from the outset for the simple reason that neither he nor anyone else could answer the four “Ws” for any kind of negotiation: who, what, why, and when.
On the “who” question, although Assad speaks for himself it is not at all clear who speaks for the opposition. The Syrian National Council is largely comprised of Syrian expats who lack legitimacy and credibility with their own people and have been unable to speak with one voice. Those doing the actual fighting to unseat Assad – the so-called Free Syrian Army and other groups – are not a coherent military or political entity. They are divided along Syria’s religious and sectarian fault lines and lack shared leadership.
The “what” or substance of any kind of negotiated settlement also remains elusive. The situation has deteriorated too far for any kind of “power sharing” agreement between Assad and Syria’s opposition groups. Nor is it at all clear if Assad is toppled whether Syria’s majority Sunni group would countenance sharing power with Syria’s Alawite Shi’ite minority and those who have resolutely backed the Assad regime. At this point, too much blood has been shed for meaningful negotiations to occur.
Although many believed that Russia was (and still remains) the key to any kind of diplomatic resolution to this crisis, they fail to answer the question why Putin would throw Assad to the dogs and support a negotiated settlement that would give Syria’s Sunni population a greater role in running Syria. Putin may eventually dump Assad, but he is unlikely to let the Sunnis run Syria for the simple reason that Russia has its own existential fears of an Islamic takeover given its own problems with its Muslim communities.
Russia and China have watched the “great awakening” of the Arab world with fear and trepidation. If Putin loses Syria, it will further embolden Russia and China’s own alienated Muslim communities.
In any negotiation, the parties will only come to the table when they feel the pain and believe the costs of a political solution outweigh the costs of continued violence. The Syrian people are feeling the horrific costs of this brutal civil war as casualties mount and Assad’s goons murder, pillage and rape their fellow citizens sparing neither children nor the elderly. There have also been reports that some opposition fighters are using similar tactics.
However, the sad truth is that as Assad’s regime totters there is little incentive for Syria’s emboldened opposition to come to the table, especially after the successful assassination of Assad’s top military commanders including the president’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat (who allegedly masterminded the assassination of Lebanon’s former president Rafik Hariri).
Assad and his Alawite, Druse, and Christian supporters have also long since concluded they are in a fight to the death.
If there was a time for diplomacy it came at the beginning of this conflict and not in its final chapter. Western powers led by the United States showed little imagination or political acumen in their own efforts to deal with this unfolding crisis. They failed to soothe Russia’s and China’s wounded pride and acute sense of betrayal in the Security Council over the NATO-led intervention in Libya. Instead, the West crooned its success in toppling Gaddafi as the beginning of a new moral order.
The so-called Friends of Syria, of which Canada has been a member, have proven to be little more than a wailing Greek chorus in this tragedy. The only thing now is to wait for events to play themselves out. Syria’s fate will be decided not through diplomacy but brute force and a civil war that now threatens the stability of the entire region.