Syrian Political Chess Match (2)

The knowns about the Syrian conflict appear to exceed the unknowns. Bashar al-Assad is a tough, stubborn individual who was not likely to welcome a revolutionary effort to overthrow his “legitimate” regime. For complex historic reasons, in addition to his own military forces, he had the good fortune to be supported by most Christians, Jews, Shiite Muslims, Alawites and others who feared a takeover of Syria by radical Sunni Muslims. Most important, Assad had the support of Iran and Russia. A significant factor often missed in discussions about Russia’s position on Syria is that an estimated 14 percent of Russia’s population (15 million) is Sunni Muslims.

From the outset of the civil war in Syria, the American position has been that the first step in resolving the dispute had to be the removal of Assad from office. That would not work. That impossible position has not changed for four years. Not just recently, but for quite some time, Putin has expressed the view that the only real chance of ending the conflict in Syria was for the United States and Russia to be joined by Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to negotiate a comprehensive peace proposal. Iran supported this position.

“External players can not decide anything for the Syrians. We must force them to come up with a plan for their country where the interests of every religious, ethnic and political group will be well protected,” Lavrov told Russian state TV in a recent interview. “They [Syria] need to prepare for both parliamentary and presidential elections.”

In the chess match on political settlement of the Syrian crisis, Egypt and Russia have agreed to the necessity of a political solution based on the Geneva Communiqué (see Blog Post #20) which would guarantee the formation of a transitional body in Syria. This leaves Saudi Arabia as the strongest and most influential supporter of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC), a coalition of opposition groups in Syria formed in 2012. Egypt and Saudi share essentially the same position on removal of Assad. Egypt could be influential in persuading Saudi to withdraw its military support of the SNC, which would leave Turkey as its only supporter. In the Syrian chess match, therefore, Egypt could play an important mediating role.

Only history will reveal even an approximation of the truth, but the recent decision by Russia to support the Assad regime with airstrikes and other military forces may have been (as discussed in Blog Post #20) a calculated strategy by Russia, with Iran’s concurrence, to force a Syrian political process that leads to an end to the Syrian crisis. In support of this view, several months ago Iran outlined a four-point sequence consisting of (1) a cease-fire, (2) formation of a unity government, (3) constitutional reforms and (4) elections. Iran could have added a step (5): a concerted effort to stamp out the threat of the Islamic State.

The price of this Russian strategy, however, for which Putin has offered no apologies, has been the inevitable escalation of violence across the country displacing tens of thousands more people, intensifying the humanitarian crisis. More than 9,000 migrants a day crossed into Greece just last week, the most since the beginning of the year. As many as 100,000 people have been uprooted north of Homs and in areas around the city of Aleppo. A great many more refugees would have fled Syria but, according to humanitarian aid groups, are trying to wait out the fighting near their home villages. In addition, the border with Turkey has been closed.