It is extremely important to examine the subtle but real change taking place at international level, to fully understand the nature and the scope of the Syria crisis.
To begin with, Syria is not Libya, and Bashar Assad is not Muammar Qaddafi.
Of great importance is the Russian factor in the new equation. Really, the new struggle now being played out is not only over Syria, but indeed over the entire Arab Middle East and the Mediterranean.
Since the days of Peter the Great and his successor Catherine, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Russia has been dreaming about, and working towards, reaching “warm waters”. The vast landmass of Russia, ice locked for much of the year, renders its navy almost helpless.
Under an agreement in 1971, one year after Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, assumed power in Syria, and during the Cold War, the Russian fleet established a naval facility in Tartous, which, in 2008, was converted into a permanent base for Russia’s nuclear armed ships.
Since then, the Russian fleet has become a major factor in the Mediterranean, tacitly backed by the Chinese.
While the Russian presence in the region, now silently acknowledged and accepted by the West, may have introduced some balance in the international relations, this very fact speaks eloquently of the bankruptcy of the Arab states, which seem to lie helpless in the struggle taking place over their region.
It appears that, ultimately, the forces in Syria alone can help the degenerating situation. Neither the West nor Russia can interfere, having checkmated each other by creating a new balance of terror.
At regional level, Turkey, on the one hand, and Iran or Israel, on the other, also appear to have checkmated each other.
However it may be resolved, the internal Syrian stalemate has already awakened many centrifugal forces in the country: Sunni, Alawite and Kurdish voices are making themselves heard.
Compromises on Assad’s fate will have to be made by the various parties. The Alawites, in control of the state machinery, army and security forces, must have realized by now that they must allow for power sharing. The status quo has to be changed and it is only wise for them to initiate the change themselves.
The West is quite clear in its insistence on regime change, while the Russians make it clear that their concern is with their long-term presence in the region and not with who might be the country’s president.
Russia’s interest in the region, stretching back to the 1950s and pre-dating the Assad regime, has not changed. Whether as the Soviet Union or as Russia, its interest has never wavered. The Russian Bear is alive and well!
The multi-polar international system between the two world wars was replaced by a bipolar system during the Cold War, then, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a unipolar system came into being that is now reverting to a bipolar system, made up by the West, including Israel and NATO, and the East, including Russia and China. At regional level, the powers asserting themselves are Turkey, Israel and Iran. No one knows where the Arabs stand.
The Alawites now feel cornered, which in itself is a dangerous situation. Should they feel that their survival is threatened, they might resort to extreme measures. It should not be forgotten that they possess various kinds of weapons of mass destruction.
Russia’s hosting of a conference of the Syrian opposition is a clear sign of its emphasis on its vital interests in the region, and not on the person who rules Syria.
Assad’s term runs until 2014. Now that there seems to be a stalemate between the various powers at international and regional levels, it might be wise to induce the Syrians to negotiate a reasonable settlement, which will include serious political reforms that will allow for genuine presidential elections in 2014.
The writer is director of the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies and former foreign minister of Jordan. The article first appeared in The Jordan Times on July 18, 2012