23 February 2012

Syria On My Mind

You probably heard that Marie Colvin, an American journalist working for the Sunday Times and Remi Ochlik, a freelance photo journalist were killed in the Syrian city of Homs. This is both a tragic event and a very sad trend as more and more journalists are losing their lives while covering hot spots.

I am guessing that some observers will think that this could become a turning point as the outrage could be used to both rally the public opinion in favor of a more vigorous policy against Syria and to pressure Russia and China to change their recent Security Council veto.

I understand the rallying pblic opinion bit. Apparently, 106 journalist have so far been killed in Syria (link in French), but since all but one (Gilles Jacquier) were non-Westerners, we never even heard about them. Now two Westerners dying in one day will attract a lot of attention and the cynical element behind it notwithstanding, I understand why it might indeed give politicians more leeway.

The only problem with this is the fact that, these politicians do not want more leeway as they have no desire to start a military intervention in Syria. Libyan example and their victory there (albeit a Pyrrhic one) should not be seen as a relevant case to analyze Syria. In Libya, European powers were jockeying to get their hands on oil and they had a willing militia on the ground doing the actual fighting. And the vast majority of Libyans were very happy to be able to get rid of Qaddafi. There is no such prize in Syria. Its meager oil reserves would not justify even a halfhearted effort. Nor is there a sizable ground force capable of going against Bashar's army.

As for putting more pressure on Russia and China, I doubt that it would achieve the desired result. Some analysts tried to explain Russian veto with a Cold War-like desire to hang on to their naval supply base in Tartus. But I find such speculations puzzling. For one thing, they put too much value on Tartus. Secondly and more importantly, everyone is aware (save perhaps for al Assad and his entourage) that there is no way the current Syrian government can stay in power even in the short run. Trying to keep a naval supply base by schmoozing an about-to-be-overthrown-government strikes me as utterly stupid. And I don't think Russians are even slightly stupid.

I tend to believe that what motivates Russia is to remain a major player in the region. Through its seemingly intransigent stance on Syria, Kremlin is making sure that (unlike Libya where it acquiesced too quickly to find itself out of the loop) there can be no Syrian solution without Russia's active participation.

If my assumption is correct, then, despite significant human suffering and loss of life in the near future, (and if Russia acts rapidly and decisively after its upcoming elections,) this might turn out to be a positive arrangement.

There are several reasons for this. A violent overthrow of the al-Assad regime by the Free Syrian Army is impossible due to the weak and disorganized nature of FSA and the substantial support al-Assad regime enjoys in many parts of Syria. Increasingly, FSA fighters sound like Sunni fundamentalists and this has to scare the living daylights out of Alawites and Christians. These groups will resist a fundamentalist Sunni army in any way they can because they know that life under them would be no picnic.

As for a foreign intervention by a regional power like Turkey, Colin Powell's  "Pottery Barn rule"  is such a massive deterrent that I seriously doubt that Turkey would even consider it. It can be done militarily but the contradictory expectations of religious and ethnic groups would make a transition to a democratic government an arduous and costly task. With FSA growing more radical every day, it would be difficult for Turkey not to appear like the army of Sunni imperialists. Nothing good can come out of such a move.

But, as everyone knows there is no way to go back to status quo ante in Syria: after 7,000 civilians dead a Rubicon of sorts has been crossed. Moreover, with the exception of Iran (and to some extent Nouri al-Maliki's government in Iraq) all regional and global players want al-Assad gone. Neither Iran nor Iraq are in a position to save this Syrian government.

So what will happen next and why do I assume that current Russian position might lead to a positive end result?

My guess is that the most important element in the denouement will be the economy. One of the axioms we easily lose sight of is the fact that no army can continue to fight without money. The Syrian economy severely contracting under the strain of sanctions and its foreign currency reserves are dwindling. While Iran is said to provide some financial assistance this is not going to be nearly enough. A leading Syrian businessman by the name of Faisal al-Qudsi said that they might have resources to fight maybe for another six months:
He said the uprising had destroyed tourism and the sanctions on exports of oil and other products had dramatically reduced the gross domestic product. 
"So, effectively the foreign exchange reserves of the central bank have come down from $22bn (£14bn) to about $10bn and it is dwindling very rapidly," Mr Qudsi said. 
He said the military phase against protesters could only last another six months "because the army is getting tired and will go nowhere".
Actually, I find his six months prediction a bit optimistic. Since early on many Syrian businesses moved their capital abroad and by now all economic activities must have come to a complete stop. With no new income and a shrinking taxation base, the government will run out of money soon. But more importantly, faced with that situation, even those who are fearful of a regime change will turn against the government.

The key will be additional pressure points (like the water threat I mentioned) and additional sanctions to hasten the demise of the economy. Interestingly, in the last six months Turkish government announced such sanctions many times but never implemented them. I suspect, this will change after the Russian elections.

Simultaneously, a determined diplomatic effort should take place to convince al-Assad that unless he goes right now, his future will be very bleak. I have always thought that he was the weakest link and he would have taken the exile option left to his own devices. It was the thugs around him who were reluctant to give up power as they feared that they can never survive a regime change.  So the same effort should involve these people as well.

A third element would be to reassure Syrian minorities that a new regime would protect them and would give them  a voice and a representation. I am not sure how this can be done but this is one of the reasons I find the FSA and its Saudi patrons unhelpful in all this. Without their Sunni Jihadist rhetoric, a lot more  Syrian people would have turned against al-Assad. One interesting aspect of that need to reassure minorities will be how Turkey will handle its Kurdish minorities through this process as it will have an effect on its credibility in the eyes of the Syrian Kurds.

In any event, if my analysis brings together all the necessary carrot and stick elements, then it is clear that to integrate Russia into this process would significantly increase its chances of success. For one thing, Syrian regime change will stop looking like a Sunni conspiracy as the current government claims it is. Russia is a known entity to Syrian people and its presence at the table would go a long way to reassure Syrian minorities.

With Turkey in a position to provide most of the "stick" elements (like water and ensuring the viability of sanctions) the combined package might just be able to effectuate regime change without breaking the pottery.

This is clearly a speculation around logical options and a best case scenario. But there are several unknowns that could prevent its implementation.

First, how will the US react to a major Russian involvement? Second, at what stage the Iranian crisis will be when all this is supposed to take place? Third, how will Iraq react to this?

And most importantly from my perspective, how this outcome will affect a Kurdish homeland.

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