On the new, misguided, international approach to Syria

On the new, misguided, international approach to Syria
Comment: The international community is betraying the Syrian people by accepting the Russian-led bid to rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad in the name of fighting terrorism, argues former SNC head Burhan Ghalioun
6 min read
29 Sep, 2015
Fearing terrorism and migration, the West is slowly buying into Putin's strategy in Syria [Getty]
With Russian forces deploying heavily to the Syrian coast, the Syrian war has entered a new phase.

The discussion is no longer about how Assad should step down, nor about the political solution and the impossibility of a military solution. It is now about how Assad can be rehabilitated, for how long - and about which powers he should retain in the interim.

This is a complete U-turn of the international position.

In 2011, diplomatic efforts were focused on fulfilling the demands of the Syrian people, who rose up against a bloody and vicious regime, which immediately responded with violence to peaceful protests.

Since then, the regime has committed countless acts that international organisations have said amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and even genocide against its own people.
There has been a complete U-turn in the international position on Syria

As a result, more than 100 nations came together under the Friends of Syria framework, and voted in favour of several UN General Assembly and Security Council resolutions condemning Assad and stressing his regime's loss of legitimacy, while recognising the Syrian opposition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

International efforts thus focused, in the beginning, on affirming the legitimacy of the demands of the Syrian people, which were endorsed by most of the world's countries, emphasising the need for full political transition towards democracy.

Shift towards the war on terror

Moscow's repeated vetoes at the Security Council obstructed international condemnation of the Syrian regime, but they did not dissuade the world from calling for Assad to step down, in the pursuance of political change in Syria and an end to the regime's mass murder of Syrian civilians.

At the time, the regime was still on the defensive, and most of its allies were too embarrassed to declare their support for Assad, who was under intense political, legal, ethical and even military pressure.

Moscow justified its position by citing the failures of the Iraq and Libya interventions and the so-called legitimacy of the Syrian government.

However, since the collapse of the Geneva process - thanks to Russian and Iranian non-cooperation - the international diplomatic climate gradually started considering the idea of power-sharing between the regime and the opposition, even when the Syrian regime was refusing to acknowledge the existence of the opposition.

The Assad regime and its allies circumvented the central idea of the Geneva process, namely having a transitional governing body with full powers take over in Syria, to undermine the negotiations and buy time in the hope of achieving a military victory and routing the opposition.
The international community gradually accepted the idea of power-sharing between regime and opposition

Meanwhile, Moscow, Tehran and Cairo sought to undermine the Syrian National Coalition of Opposition Forces by facilitating alternative gatherings and meetings.

At the same time, these capitals overemphasised if not enabled the expansion of extremist forces, led by the Islamic State group, into the areas controlled by the opposition.

Soon thereafter, what Assad and his allies long dreamed of became a reality: the international community was left with two choices, either start dealing with the Assad regime or accept IS and its ilk.

In the past several months, this approach made significant progress. Many European countries have since subscribed to Russia's pretexts, showing increased apprehension vis-a-vis the expansion of terrorism at the price of increasingly ignoring the rights and future of the Syrian people.

Some Western powers no longer see Assad from the perspective of his serious human rights violations, but from the perspective of what he can offer in the war on terror, regardless of his crimes against his people.

This has only worsened because of the dismal failure of the US strategy in Syria, and the rising concerns regarding the imminent collapse of the regime in Damascus - following which Islamist groups could overrun the Syrian capital.

Russian intervention

Direct Russian military intervention is an attempt to take advantage of this floundering Western strategy in Syria. Russia wants to impose a new reality that was unthinkable at the start of the revolution.

Many European countries have subscribed to Russia's pretexts after the expansion of 'terrorism'

The Russian leader Vladimir Putin, by shoring up the Assad regime and forcing the Syrian people to accept this by force, wants to turn the tables against the Western nations and retake the initiative internationally.

His purpose: to force the United States and Europe to undo the sanctions on Moscow and recognise Russia's interests in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Saving the Assad regime is Russia's trump card to restore Russia's position in the international arena, and raise it to become on par with the United States - which no one dares second-guess or impose sanctions upon.

Arguably, this has been Russia's plan from the get-go. To Russia, Syria is little more than an opportunity to settle scores with the West and thwart Western global domination.

The same applies to Iran's strategy in Syria, which to Tehran was the gateway to regional expansion and international recognition, by supporting Assad and his regime.

The Russians did not come to Syria to fight IS and other terrorist organisations. They came to book their seat in any upcoming settlement, just like the Iranians sought to do before them, to force the international community to seek their help.

In truth, the Assad regime initiated this strategy of baiting terrorism, when it released al-Qaeda-affiliated and other radical detainees. The aim has been to blackmail the Syrians and the international community, and resist any negotiations and compromises regarding its grip over Syria.

Today, we are living what is perhaps the worst moment in the history of the Syrian question. Betrayals and bargains here and there have turned the political and diplomatic situation upside down.

Now, preserving and strengthening the Assad regime to stop the tide of terrorism - which it had itself unleashed - has become the goal of international efforts to end the conflict in Syria, rather than saving the Syrian people from their bloody ordeal and fulfilling their aspirations and rights.

The Russians did not come to Syria to fight IS but to book a seat in any upcoming settlement

The consolation prize will probably be a measly "national unity" government, meaning a government shared between the regime and opportunistic opposition figures.

The cause of the Syrian people has therefore been reduced to the humanitarian issue of the refugees.

In the meantime, the rehabilitation of the collapsing Assad regime has become the top priority of the greatest international political summit at the UN General Assembly.

The fate of the Russian intervention may not be better than that of the Iranian intervention.

Yet if the Russian-Iranian scheme for Syria were to succeed in saving Assad - instead of sending him to the ICC for being the world's worst mass-murderer in recent times - this will expose the fact that there is no longer any difference between international politics and organised crime.

It would mean that there is no longer any difference between governing and running international affairs, and running a mafia and its criminal interests.

This is the world that Putin's Russia wants us to live in.

Burhan Ghalioun is a Syrian professor of sociology, and the first chairman of the Syrian opposition Transitional National Council.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.