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Are the Western allies looking for an alternative to Assad?

Indications in the Middle East suggest the emergence of a new approach to the situation in Syria. They are being scrutinised on the domestic, regional and international level and coincide with the ongoing preparations for the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria.

According to several indicators, this approach is based on applying the Iraqi solution, which required Nouri Al-Maliki to step down as prime minister, to Syria. This would see Bashar Al-Assad removed and replaced, but the existing state institutions would be retained, followed by constitutional, structural and institutional measures in line with the new Syrian reality.

The Western rejection of Syria's offer to help in the upcoming war on ISIS is worth noting, as the answer was firm and left no room for the possibility of including Assad's regime in the international alliance that is being established for the war. This is despite the fact that the regime sought to promote itself as the best able to provide the logistic support required by the West at the moment. Such support would include the Syrian army engaging with the alliance and providing, for example, the coordinates of potential ISIS targets.

The Syrians also claim that they have the full details of all the foreign fighters within the ISIS ranks. In terms of operational considerations, there is no doubt that such support would be important for the Western coalition.

From Assad's point of view, holding this information provides a bargaining chip to deal with the West so that it will be accepted within the alliance. Indeed, there has been a media campaign by European and American PR companies to promote the need to coordinate with Assad and his government, describing it as the lesser of two evils. This, however, has not influenced the West, which still completely rejects any cooperation with the Syrian government. Why is this the case?

The West's position is based on moral issues; Assad's regime has lost any legitimacy it may have once had and committed terrible crimes against its own people. In addition, the facts suggest that Western positions can be interpreted more accurately by looking at them from a primarily expediential and operational point of view because it has become clear that if Assad stays in power, dealing with him will only increase the seriousness of the problem and raise the level of polarisation towards ISIS. The only way to dismantle and destroy the Islamic State is for the Sunnis in Syria and Iraq to cooperate, while cooperation with Assad, and thus explicit support for him, will only make matters worse.

The West knows very well that Assad's regime has become so weak that any cooperation would be useless, as it no longer controls large parts of Syria and appears to be declining significantly; it is also losing its previously-strong points due to the president losing the trust of his own Alawite community. Many activists from the sect have launched a campaign in the heart of the Alawite areas with the motto, "You [Assad] have the palace and we have the graves". Other minorities have also started to lose confidence in Assad, including the Christians and Druze, who now clearly express the risks and dangers facing all Syrians brought about by the regime.

This could act as a lever in the West's favour as it puts the alliance together. Furthermore, most of the international community agrees that ISIS poses a threat to world peace. This was manifested in UN Security Council Resolution 2170 and a request to Washington to provide assistance against the Islamic State.

It is clear that Washington will not accomplish the task without political dues from the region. It has already proposed pressure on most of Syria's allies. It is worth noting that the report issued by the Commission of Inquiry mandated by the Human Rights Council to follow up on the situation in Syria focused on the fact that Assad's regime and ISIS are committing crimes against humanity. This message must have been received by Assad's allies, as it is not only ISIS's crimes that are punishable under international law.

On the other hand, and in the same context, Washington has begun making statements that it needs a new operational environment to guarantee the success of its mission, and that one of the most important elements of this environment is settling the situation in Syria in the manner proposed by Washington over two years ago: remove the head of state; preserve state institutions; and form a government made up of individuals from the regime and the opposition.

Washington considers that such an environment can work in Syria, as the Obama administration argues that it does not have the intelligence resources and networks on the ground that will help it accomplish its mission. This, it is argued, can only be achieved by Assad's opponents with a presence in the areas that ISIS has occupied; the regime does not have this advantage.

America is looking at the issue of Assad seriously now in the context of negotiations and it is requesting a vision project or political programme to be adopted by the international alliance focusing on a post-Assad Syria and matters relating to this, such as reconciliation, reconstruction and the return of the displaced persons and refugees. Preparations for this are already under way; a secret meeting has already been held in Oslo between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime, sponsored by the Norwegian government. Sessions have also been held in Berlin and Washington for groups of Syrians regarding good governance.

Some reports claim that European, American and Gulf companies are being recruited for the reconstruction of Syria. Leaked information suggests that a US congressional delegation visit to Beirut recently, led by Republican Senator Darrell Issa, included talks on the development of a vision for investment in Syria.

On the regional level, there are some signs that an Arab initiative to resolve the Syrian crisis may be announced soon; leaks to this effect were reported by Egypt's Shorouk newspaper. It also mentioned the formation of a regional and international bloc to confront ISIS, on the condition that this is preceded by the removal of Bashar Al-Assad from power. The initiative is expected to be passed to the Arab League as a first step towards convincing the international community to back it.

What about Assad's allies? It is said that Iran has been made aware of these actions, especially those of the Arab governments, and so Tehran is racing against the clock to propose a counter-initiative based on the idea of a transitional phase under Assad's leadership. There are those who have gone so far as to link these plans to the visit made by Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdul Allahaan to Riyadh.

It is strange that at this crucial time Iran has cut off financial aid to Assad's regime; sources also claim that Lebanon's Hezbollah – funded by Iran ‑ has reduced its presence in Syria. All of this is being interpreted in the context of Iran's apparent exhaustion in the Syrian conflict. Its current diplomatic measures over Syria appear to be aimed at improving its negotiation position for an acceptable price for Assad's head. Tehran's problem is that no one has approached it or proposed to make a deal regarding the Syrian president. This is perhaps why is it working in other arenas, prompting the Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to confirm that Tehran has started to barter Damascus for Sana'a.

As for Russia, it is clear that it is floundering in the Ukraine, which has depleted its diplomatic and political energy. This may explain Russia's noticeable absence from the Syrian issue after once being present in all international activities in this regard, when Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was speaking almost daily on Syrian affairs.

Russia is also feeling threatened by the Islamist extremists following the revelation that large numbers of Chechens and Caucasians are among the ranks of the fighters in Syria. There is no doubt that Moscow realises that the UN resolution condemning ISIS and promoting the war against it has the potential to be used against the Assad regime. Is it possible that Moscow swallowed this poison with complete knowledge that it was doing so?

What is more important than any of this is that Assad's allies, both regional and international, are now completely convinced that injections of aid will no longer work for the Syrian president. At the Geneva conference, they predicted that his regime could survive and put pressure on him to stand firm. This has contributed to blurring the potential for a political solution.

All the facts suggest that the regime in Damascus has lost its security safety net that had once ensured that it wouldn't fall; it was propped up by local, regional and international support. ISIS has contributed greatly to this state of affairs, despite the fact that the regime seems to have learned from its mistakes. As a result, the Assad government is now standing on shaky ground and is expected to cave in at any moment. This, more than anything else, is probably the most important factor in the search for an alternative to Bashar Al-Assad.

Translated from Al Jazeera net, 10 September, 2014

 

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

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