Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1164, (12 - 18 September 2013)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1164, (12 - 18 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Hoping for Syria breakthrough

Avoiding a US military strike against Syria would be good news for many Arab capitals, not only Damascus, Dina Ezzat reports

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Al-Ahram Weekly

With Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and US President Barack Obama both searching — on parallel tracks and for different reasons — for an exit from the present crisis, including US threats of a military strike on Syria, the Middle East is holding its breath in anticipation of a diplomatic breakthrough.
Russia, France, and the UN/Arab League envoy on Syria were all racing in the search for a diplomatic package that could spare Syria from a US strike while simultaneously granting the US president a graceful exit out of the corner into which he painted himself when over a week ago he threatened to strike Damascus over its alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people.
The pathway to a resolution was offered by Moscow, one of Al-Assad’s last remaining allies: that no strike — in the Russian formula — or any other punitive measure would be taken before UN experts issued a report that could verify whether or not Al-Assad used chemical weapons against his people, and that Syria would open its chemical weapons capacity to UN inspections, and possibly observation.
“The offer was made while the Obama administration was hopelessly trying to lobby home and international support, and it was received with a positive nod from Washington,” said a Cairo-based European diplomat.
For its part, according to an Egyptian diplomat, Cairo is hoping to consolidate the chances of a diplomatic deal that would spare Syria, the region and even Egypt from the consequences of a US strike.
On Tuesday, Laurent Fabius, foreign minister of France — the most fervent supporter of Obama, despite reservations among the French — said Paris would table a resolution to be adopted by the UN Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter (which authorises the use of force) for Syrian chemical weapons capacity to be put under international control and for the UN to adopt a mechanism for punishing Al-Assad should this capacity be used in a way that would compromise peace or constitute an attack.
Arab diplomatic sources, who have been divided on the proposed US strike, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the French proposal is well-received. For those who have wanted a US strike (predominantly Arab Gulf Cooperation Council states), it opens the door for a UN endorsed attack against the Al-Assad regime to come later. While for those who oppose the strike (especially Algeria, Iraq and Egypt), it closes the door on a strike for now, giving hope that a serious diplomatic demarche could sooner rather than later allow Al-Assad and the opposition to agree on a political settlement — likely via the proposed and long delayed Geneva II conference.
In Paris, on the eve of the Fabius UN resolution proposal, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi — according to a statement issued by his press office — pressed on his French and visiting US counterparts to give diplomacy a chance to spare Syria and the region from unmitigated havoc Cairo feared would come with any attack.
As the Weekly was going to print it was not clear whether or not the French proposal was picking up momentum, and in what direction. “Obviously the Russians might block it, even though it is essentially inspired by the Moscow proposal, if they find it would include firm language on an automatic UN endorsed strike against Syria at the next allegation of use of chemical weapons,” said a UN diplomat. He anticipated a “considerable” negotiations process that might reach a breakthrough, or “that could alternatively be the pretext to lobby support from reluctant states on the pretext that all diplomatic efforts have been exhausted and that Al-Assad is not reciprocating”.
If French of Russian proposals fail, “in this case, it would still be a strike with no green light from the UN Security Council and against the backdrop of a highly sceptical public in the US and with maybe a very limited support from the US Congress — if at all, given that Obama himself has been public in expressing scepticism over Congressional support,” the same diplomat argued.
In this case, Arab and Western diplomats agree, a strike would be limited in scope and duration. “It would be strictly designed for Obama to save face, because without an international diplomatic exit Obama would find it very hard to just retreat on his threat. It would be a real blow to the image of US international supremacy,” said a regional diplomat.
A limited strike would not remove Al-Assad — nor would it necessarily, according to some Middle East-based military attaches, considerably change on the balance on the ground in favour of the opposition which has been losing ground for the past few months, despite considerable military and financial support from the West and the Arab Gulf who are united in their wish to remove Al-Assad (albeit for different purposes).
The West is keen to weaken the army of Syria, whose land is still occupied by Israel, and to simultaneously wag a finger at Hizbullah and Iran, who are engaged on the ground in Syria in support of Al-Assad. Arab Gulf leaders are responding to earlier public insults by the Syrian president and a feud over neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq, which have been trying hard stay away from the looming storm for fear of what one Lebanese diplomat qualified as the “spill over effect when the volcano erupts”.
According to one of the aides of UN/Arab League Envoy on Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, it has not been at all clear whether a US strike would encourage Al-Assad or the opposition to go to the negotiation table.
In the assessment of some international humanitarian workers in Syria, a strike could make “an angry Al-Assad even more vindictive to the opposition”. This would simply mean “a longer warring phase” with a worse and more devastating problem of refugees and internally displaced persons.
In Cairo’s reading, further deterioration in Syria could only further destabilise the Arab Mashreq and set back Egyptian attempts to stimulate its economy after two and a half years of intense political upheaval.
“We are fighting all odds to help secure the return of tourism to Egypt, at least to the Red Sea zone, for the Christmas season. With a strike on Syria, we will not even hope for anything to happen before the Christmas of 2014 — if things don’t get out of hands. We are praying no strike takes place,” said an official at the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism.
According to other government officials in Egypt, what goes for tourism goes for investment and even Suez Canal traffic.
“As far as Egypt is concerned, there is nothing good that would come from a strike — nothing at all. Not just from the economic perspective, but indeed from the political perspective, because no matter how much we disagree with Al-Assad, the last thing we want is to see Syria further weakened in favour of Israel, or to see long-term havoc in Syria that would end in favour of the removal of the Al-Assad regime for a radical Islamist regime, given that Islamist factions in Syria are the only plausible alternative at the moment,” said a senior government official.
The rise of political Islam from the ashes of political turmoil in Syria is expected with or without a strike. Arab and Western diplomats who have taken part in rounds of negotiations over the past year say it in black and white: Islamists are the alternative in Syria as they were in Tunisia and Egypt following the removal of Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali and Hosni Mubarak.
In the analysis of some regional capitals, keen US interest to weaken Al-Assad is exactly about that: Obama, who lost his bid on establishing moderate Islamist regimes in key Arab countries to contain growing radical wings of political Islam, is looking for the strategy to succeed on the third try after Muslim Brotherhood rule was torpedoed in Egypt and appears weakened in Tunisia.
In the analysis of other capitals, this is not the US objective. Rather, the US wants to force a political settlement in Syria with the help of the West, to allow for the West along with Arab Gulf allies to decide the make-up of the next Syrian regime — possibly through Geneva II or another political format. “Obama is no longer betting on moderate political Islam,” said an informed European diplomat. She added: “It would be impossible for the US president not to be seeing the quick defeat of political Islam across the Middle East.”
For Ashraf Al-Sherif, political science professor at the American University in Cairo, Syria’s political Islam is not necessarily — or maybe at all — what Obama is looking for. “In Syria, there is a considerable presence of much more radical versions of political Islam. It is the Al-Qaeda-based version that has the upper hand in Syria today,” he said.
According to Al-Sherif, no political settlement in Syria can rule out the Muslim Brotherhood, “if only as the antidote to the Al-Qaeda alternative”.
This said, Al-Sherif added: “Whether under Geneva II or under any other formula that would be proposed, with or without a strike on Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood’s share in the next Syrian regime would not be a majority share, as was the case in Egypt or Tunisia. It would be smaller and much less dominating.”
Strike or no strike, US actions are unlikely to influence that share much.

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