One Last Chance for Diplomacy as Syria Declares a Civil War

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Summary
If diplomacy in Syria does not succeed, the depth and breadth of devastation will increase dramatically. International actors must act swiftly and decisively in order to avoid further escalation of violence in Syria and its neighboring countries.
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The final communique of the nine-party Action Group for Syria that met in Geneva last weekend was significant for what it did not say as much as for what it did. The statement expressed a consensus that fundamental political change was necessary and should be led by a fully empowered transitional government made up of opposition and government representatives.

On the other hand, the agreement did not explicitly call for Bashar Al Assad's departure, nor did it include a timetable, nor a course of action to be followed should its clauses not be respected.

The Syrian government has largely ignored the statement. The opposition is divided, with some welcoming the decision as the only way forward, and others considering it a mockery to ask opposition groups to form a government alongside their "executioners".

While there is little hope for this plan to be implemented right away, the Syrian regime is coming under intensifying pressure. Some reports from Syria and the Arab press claim Russia now recognises that Mr Al Assad and the small clique around him must go as part of any resolution. Other reports say Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama discussed the outlines of a post-Assad transition during a recent meeting.

The Geneva statement says that the transitional government will be formed by "mutual consent" of the parties. Western officials have interpreted this as excluding Mr Al Assad, because the opposition will never consent to his inclusion.

The statement also stipulates that "public services must be preserved or restored ... this includes the military forces and security services". This reflects Russia's insistence that even if Mr Al Assad leaves, the military and security institutions with which they have longtime relations and large investments will remain, and that there will be no repeat of the Iraqi experience of dissolving the army.

Indeed, Russia - and possibly even Iran - might hope that in a Russian-orchestrated process, Syria's internal transition could be managed without altering its regional and international alignments, allowing it to remain close to Russia, Iran and Hizbollah.

The regime itself remains defiant. Mr Al Assad has announced a new antiterrorism law that increases jail sentences for his opponents. Security agencies have stepped up the depth and breadth of arrests in recent weeks, going beyond direct opposition activists to target those who indirectly support them. There are also fears of a dramatic escalation in regime violence.

The regime so far has not used the full military means at its disposal; following Mr Al Assad's declaration last week that Syria is in a civil war, there are fears that the regime could attempt larger military operations this summer to try again to settle the conflict by force.

But such an escalation would only increase the death toll without forcing a conclusion. Many units of the armed forces are not willing to engage in such an escalation, and would defect in higher numbers. There is already remarkably widespread collaboration between rebels and some members of government security forces who stay at their posts but quietly help the rebels, either for money or out of sympathy. Meanwhile, the opposition is becoming increasingly well-armed and mobile, and could survive an escalated set of assaults.

Indeed, we may have entered a period in which diplomacy is being given its last chance. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are already providing material support to the rebels, and the US and UK are providing intelligence and other forms of "soft" assistance. Kofi Annan, the Arab League and UN envoy, as well as the West, have accommodated Russia's position at the political level, and are giving Mr Putin a chance to engineer a political resolution.

Moscow is eager to prove Russia's influence in the Middle East, and to demonstrate that Russia is a capable and necessary partner. Mr Putin does not want to fail in Syria, nor does he want to get dragged into a proxy war with the West, Turkey and the GCC.

Moscow is in close contact with the Syrian regime as well as with hundreds of officers in the Russian-trained and equipped security forces. It will also host the Syrian opposition later this month. There is still a chance that Russia can engineer a resolution.

Although there has been much talk of a "Yemeni model", what Russia is contemplating might be closer to an Egyptian model: in Egypt, the armed forces assisted in the "soft" removal of the president and his inner circle while preserving their own power and continuing to dominate the political, security and constitutional processes.

In any case, if Mr Putin is able to translate the Geneva communique into results on the ground, the worst will be avoided and the country might actually enter into a managed transition. If he fails, then the stage is set for a rapid escalation of conflict in Syria with serious regional and international proxy support for opposing sides. Such an escalation would not only devastate Syria, but would also threaten the stability of Lebanon, and could cause serious security concerns for Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

Indeed, if diplomacy does not succeed, the depth and breadth of devastation will increase dramatically. There is still a chance to step back from the brink, but the brink is getting closer every day.

This article was originally published by the National.

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