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From red lines... to white flags

January 28, 2014 at 6:40 am

When US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and his Russian counterpart and host Sergei Lavrov, make an announcement on having reached an agreement to hold an international conference on the Syrian crisis following marathon all night discussions, we know that such an announcement can only be made as part of a deal between the foreign ministers of the world’s two superpowers.

It is clear that the U.S. administration had to make the bigger compromise in adopting the Russian stance and political formula.  At a time when Washington has declared its red lines, confirmed that it is reviewing its policy and position on the Syrian crisis, and that it intends to arm the opposition with advanced modern weapons, calling for a ‘peace conference’ yields to Russia’s terms by admitting the ‘legitimacy’ of the Syrian regime. Moreover, it fails to repeat the ‘traditional requirement’ for Bashar’s departure as a condition for any negotiations with him.

We are certainly not talking about the ‘irrefutable evidence’ confirming Bashar’s use of chemical weapons against his own people, nor are we talking about Obama’s reiteration of his favourite phrase – that the days of the Syrian regime are numbered. The talk here is about negotiations on the basis of the Geneva communique’, which calls for the formation of a transitional government that brings together members of the regime and the opposition, without making any mention of the future of the regime and its President.

I can’t help but wonder what the ‘password’ or the code is that triggered this enormous shift in the American stance and imposed this sudden retreat from the military options that have been on the table for the last two years; trading them in for diplomatic options aimed at reaching a political solution through negotiations between the opponents.

The password is made up of 7 characters, spelling out ‘Israel’ and the concern for its future and its existence within safe and stable borders, in addition to eliminating of the threat of war, and neutralising the biggest danger to is, which is chaos and the possibility of Syria turning into a base for “Al-Qaida”.

The Russian and American administrations may differ in opinion over the Al-Assad regime and over whether it should continue or not. However, they do agree on a joint enemy, which is Islamic Jihad, and which caused them humiliating defeats in Afghanistan (America at the hands of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and Russia at the hands of the Afghan Jihadists) and in Iraq (America), not to mention Israel’s defeat in southern Lebanon in 2006, and its lack of victory in its war on the Gaza Strip in late 2008 due to the perseverance of resistance groups.

There are other additional factors that may have played a significant role in the shift of the American position which are summed up in the following points:

• Firstly, the Obama administration does not want a new war in the Middle East, especially in Syria, because it would not have guaranteed results. It would also require American troops on the ground in the event that any decision to intervene is made to establish a no-fly zone or to seize the chemical weapons store (America would need 75,000 soldiers).

• Secondly, the failure of all American and Arab efforts to find a “secular” alternative for the Bashar Al-Assad regime in the event he is overthrown. The Syrian coalition has no leader since the resignation of Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib, and his nominated successor, Prime Minister Ghassan Hitto, who has been a leader of a ministry with no ministers for over 2 months, is not accepted by the majority of Syrians both inside and outside Syria. Furthermore, there has been news of his intention to resign.

• Thirdly, serious disputes between the regional square supporting the Syrian opposition reflected in the most recent Friends of Syria Conference in Istanbul. Turkey and Qatar are on one hand and Saudi Arabia and the UAE are on the other, which greatly frustrated Kerry.

• Fourthly, the steady expansion of Islamic jihadist groups on the Syrian ground, and the fact that they have won over the hearts and minds of a lot of Syrians due to their discipline and the toughness of their fighters. Moreover, they are impressed by the humility of their leaders, as well as the fact that they have been staying away from the spotlight, and have provided tangible services to the citizens, especially security, order, and judicial justice.

• Finally, the Israeli attack on Syria, which was an escalation of the conditions in the area which are on the verge of a destructive regional war. This attack embarrassed the regime and its supporters in Moscow, Tehran, and southern Lebanon, and forced them all into making an inevitable retaliation to save their reputation as “the axis of evil” and to respond to the criticisms saying they are able to retaliate against the “terrorism” of the opposition but are silent against the terrorism of Israel.

The question at hand concerns the possibility of this sudden conference being successful in reaching a political settlement. Also, will the invited parties attend the conference, i.e. the opposition and the regime, and have genuine intentions and desires to make this work?

Furthermore, which party is legitimate and acceptable to represent the opposition; the National Coalition, the National Council, the opposition inside Syria, the coordination committee or the independents? Or if a decision to form a delegation combining all these forces is made, what will the selection process be, what are the standards, and who will head the delegation?

The national Coalition made a statement yesterday saying it would not participate in the conference unless an agreement is made for al-Assad to step down. This statement was a gift on a silver platter presented to the regime that excused it from being the first to refuse, as it was believed that the latter would have a problem sitting at the same table with and on the same level as the opposition that wants to overthrow it.

There are two men who will emerge victorious from this peaceful Russian-American action. The first is President Bashar Al-Assad (if temporarily) and the second is Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy. Al-Assad has regained his international legitimacy because he and his regime will return to the arena with power and with the recognition from the Americans he has long been seeking. As for Lakhdar Brahimi, the decision concerning his resignation will be postponed for the next 6 months, as well as his retirement and the fact that he will be forgotten, during which he will be able to enjoy the political and media lights.

America does not want a war in Syria or Iran and will avoid it at any cost, and the Russians share the same fear. However, the only war they want to engage in, either together or individually is the war against Islamic Jihadist groups in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Stay tuned for the upcoming American and Russian “awakenings”. Whether the scheduled peace conference is a success or a failure, eliminating the Al-Nusra Front and the likes is the new basis for Russian-American cooperation.

The author is editor-in-chief of Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper, London. This article is a translation from the Arabic published on 8 May 2013.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.