The international equation governing the issues of Syria and Iran has been altered, after the balance of power on the ground between the regime and the opposition in Syria changed, with the opposition now possessing tanks and anti-aircraft missiles.
The climate had been captive to the regime in Damascus, and the balance of military power in its favor had formed a weapon in Russia’s hands to use in political negotiations over the future of Syria, as well as over the future of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s influence in the region. But today, diplomacy has become the mirror image of what is taking place on the field, and the political process now follows force rather than precedes it, as it had in the recent past. The balance of power has changed on the field, where Turkey has become part of the war in Syria, as Pakistan had been part of the war in Afghanistan in the late 1970s, a war which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the era of the single superpower, replacing the era of the two poles: The U.S. and the USSR.
The situation in Syria today resembles that of Afghanistan back then, in terms of regional alliances with the United States in the face of Russia, which clung to old methods, a decaying legacy and the voice of the past that rejects civil society, public opinion, rule of law and the centrality of growth. This “Russia” in turn is clinging to a regime in Damascus that is steadily heading towards collapse through a civil war it itself is feeding, as it clings to a regime in Tehran that is escalating on the nuclear issue and dropping a gift in the lap of Israeli escalation against it in the process.
Russia has lost the political assets to convince and the role of sponsor of the political solution, after it did away with the latter with its third veto at the Security Council. Moscow today has become the sponsor of division and the patron of civil war.
The new military equation, embodied in missiles and tanks entering the battle against the regime, may lead Moscow into another wave of hysteria, with which it would decide to give more powerful and technologically advanced weapons to the regime, and thus truly enter into a proxy war in Syria against the Western-Arab alliance in the region, including towards Iran. At the same time, the new military balance of power may lead Moscow to pay heed to the necessity of returning to the table of compromises and trade-offs with the West and the Arabs, on the basis of finally accepting that there is no way for President Bashar al-Assad to remain in power and no way to maintain a single ruling regime.
Indeed, Russian diplomacy has procrastinated and been excessively confident, which has led to complete rejection, first of all, of any formula whereby the political process would take place with Assad present, and secondly of keeping the regime strong after Assad. The most that can be accepted now is for some of the leaders of the regime to participate in power with leaders of the opposition. That is if it is not too late, if Russia continues to escalate and engage in confrontations after it completely lost its margin to maneuver.
It is clear now that the U.S. Administration has taken the decision to “turn a blind eye to” or “encourage” arming the opposition with missiles and tanks. President Barack Obama has finally sprung to action, or in other words, decided to stop eluding military challenges in the war in Syria, and was forced to agree to the necessity of arming the rebels, even without being convinced or wanting to do so.
What has forced him to do so is not so much the stance taken by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, as the military decisiveness of the opposition on the field and Russia’s diplomatic excess in embarrassing him and backing him into a corner.
The new balance of military power on the field has altered the political equation for both the regime in Damascus and the Russian government. Before, Moscow had been comfortable with its margin of maneuver when the military balance of power was in favor of its ally in Damascus, and when the regime in Damascus arrogantly snubbed political solutions under Russia’s protection. Today, any possible political solution would be the product of the new balance of power. The battle of Aleppo, as Bashar Al-Assad said, is the battle of fate. It is the battle that will decide the country’s future. Turkey’s airspace has now been opened to Syria, as Pakistan had in the past opened its airspace to Afghanistan during the war to bring down the Soviet Union. Russia’s influence may face the same fate if President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov persist on the path of confrontation, believing – as they seem to – that the regime in Damascus will win the battle of Aleppo, and that Bashar al-Assad will remain in power, even if under the formula of dividing the country.
But if actual support to the Syrian opposition were to wane, and the supply of missiles, tanks and other necessary military equipment were to stop, then the Syrian regime may win the battle, and the opposition would weaken as a result of such losses. Things would then become more complicated and would take more time, while extremists would reinforce their practices against the opposition, practices which fall under organized terrorism.
Yet none of all this will restore for the regime that has ruled for decades its ability to remain in power as it had been. Bashar al-Assad and his regime have lost control over the countryside and areas far from the big cities. It may win the battle that will ignite the civil war and the battle of division, yet this too will not ensure its survival, as Stinger missiles did not only contribute to bringing down the Soviet Union in the Afghan war, but in fact brought it down altogether.
It is clear now that Bashar al-Assad will not step down, nor will he accept the Yemeni model based on leaving power with guarantees. It seems that his final decision – which he may have taken willingly or been forced to take – is that of not backing down on inflaming civil war as a means to remain in power, and of resolving to export sectarian war to Syria’s neighborhood, just as it seems that Russia’s leadership is party to taking such a direction, according to the impression left among the majority of people and governments in the Arab region.
This is dangerous for Russia and for its interests. If the regime were to remain on a background of civil war and division, Russia would lose. And if the regime in Damascus were to collapse, Russia would no longer have a foothold in the Middle East. The war in Syria today is no longer a battle of Katyusha rockets. Rather, the new cutting edge weapons are still in the process of entering the Syrian arena, and through them the balance of power on the field is changing.
Some people wonder today: how can Russia’s leadership take a strategic decision that binds it in the hands of a regime headed towards its demise, and brands it as the sponsor of civil war and division in the face of an Arab-Turkish-American-European alliance that had repeatedly offered it partnership in a political solution?
Others wonder: what is the wisdom of a Russian stance that has in effect led to bringing the issue of Syria out of the hands of the Security Council, to place it with ready-made and logical justifications in the hands of a group of countries that have grown tired of trying to satisfy Russia while it made use of one veto after another?
Moscow sought to take revenge for the “insult” it suffered in Libya in the bombing operations carried out by the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO). Yet by taking such revenge it has driven the situation towards adopting the Libyan model in Syria without direct air cover from NATO. Moscow sought to hijack the political solution and placed joint United Nations and Arab League Envoy Kofi Annan at the forefront of such hijacking. Yet by making use of its third veto, it has done away with Kofi Annan and his mission, and turned his six-point plan initiative into a thing of the past, unconnected to reality as it is today.
Moscow is the one that has driven things towards the path of military settlement, after the majority had walked with it on the path of a political solution for a long time. Moscow is the one that settled the issue of the two parallel tracks in favor of the track of confrontation and military settlement.
Perhaps Russia’s leadership will rectify and reconsider its policies and its interests. And perhaps it will go further in revenge, through Syrian and Iranian confrontations on the field and at the Security Council.
Here, any use of chemical weapons will force Russia to correct its course, as it cannot bear to become ostracized internationally as a country that supported the use of banned weapons. Western sources say that Russia and Iran have both pledged to work to prevent chemical weapons from being used in the Syrian war.
Yet such reassurances do not mean that the mood in Tehran or in Moscow is headed towards consensus and agreement with the West, but rather the opposite. Moscow might resort to trying to “change the conversation” at the Security Council by protesting to American threats against the Islamic Republic of Iran, if it were to persist in its methods on the nuclear issue.
What Mitt Romney said during his visit to Israel has prompted the Obama Administration to rush to outbid him. This is no point of divergence between the Republican and the Democratic candidates to the presidency, and they have both fallen into Israel’s lap. To be specific, Obama fell first into Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lap when he publicly pledged that the United States would not allow Iran to become a nuclear power. Such a precedent, of a public pledge by an American President not to allow Iran to be a nuclear power, reserving the right and freedom to resort to any means to stop it from achieving this, has caused an imbalance in international relations.
Nevertheless, the stances taken by Tehran have not helped to bring such an imbalance to light, but in fact have contributed to feeding weariness of Iran’s procrastination, defiance and arrogance – the most recent instance of this being the call made by Iran’s Supreme Leader for increasing uranium enrichment to 60 percent, not just to 20 percent, a rate that had been rejected in the first place, in addition to his pledge that Iran would defend the regime in Damascus even with its armies.
An atmosphere of political panic prevails in the region, and portends that the climate of war will reach Iran as well, even if not before the U.S. presidential elections in November. So far, Russia seems mobilized for war to take revenge for the insult, imposing itself as a player that wagers on the weakness of American resolve in confrontation, and the desire of the American people to avoid getting implicated. Furthermore, there is Obama’s need for a “timeout”, in parallel with Europe’s failure to act due to its economic crisis, as well as the structural hatred that exists in the Third World for America’s monopoly of the position of superpower, and distrust of America as a partner because of its time-honored reputation of abandoning its partners and betraying them in the midst of the battle,
All of this does not make of Russia’s stance a mature and strategic policy that is aware of its interests on the long term. Perhaps wisdom will find its way to Russian policy to replace this nationalist hysteria, which does not befit Russia, under the slogan of revenge for a feigned insult.
The writer is a columnist at al-Hayat daily. The article was published in the London-based daily on August 03, 2012