A “Round Table” for Syria?


By Michael Liebig

Founded in 1962 by Ewald von Kleist, the Munich Security Conference (MSC) has become probably the leading international event debating security policy. Until 1990, then named Wehrkunde conference, the event was an exclusively „trans-Atlantic“ affair. But von Kleist recognized early on that the world was moving towards multipolarity and invited also political leaders and security experts from Russia, China, India and other Eurasian countries.

Asia was one of lead items at the 48th MSC on Feb. 3-5, now chaired by the German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger. On the one hand, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Pannetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphatically assured the Europeans that the Obama administration’s new strategic focus on the Asia-Pacific region would not diminish the importance of transatlantic relations. On the other hand, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun and Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen vividly demonstrated the new self-confidence of Asia, as they contrasted Asia’s rapidly growing economic strength with the deep economic troubles in the USA and Europe.

Another fascinating topic of the 2012 MSC was cyber security. The panel speakers included Gen. Michael Hayden, former head of the CIA and the NSA, and the Russian Eugene Kaspersky, CEO of one of the world’s leading private companies on IT security. .

The Syria Issue

However, Asia and cyber security were not at the center of the media coverage of the 2012 MSC. The conference was overshadowed by the crisis in Syria. With about 30 heads of government, foreign and defense ministers participating, the MSC turned into a hectic diplomatic forum – and Syria was a key subject. In Munich, Clinton tried to convince Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov to support a resolution against the Assad regime at the UN Security Council. The resolution should condemn the Assad regime and impose severe sanctions. Lavrov remained adamant and, on the same day in New York, Russia and China vetoed the UNSC resolution against Syria.

The outrage and indignation over Russia’s and China’s stance was massive – at the MSC, in Western capitals and in most mainstream media. I wondered how anyone should have expected a different position? In March 2011, Russia and China had let pass a UNSC resolution on Libya that included a no-fly zone to protect the civilian population. The resolution was used as a license by NATO to conduct an air war against troops loyal to Gaddafi which lasted till October 2011 when the Libyan dictator was physically liquidated. Russia and China felt tricked and made unambiguously clear that they would not allow something similar to happen again. The resolution against the Assad regime in Syria contained no reference to the use of military force, but that was obviously not enough for Russia and China to allay their suspicion.

I’m no expert on the larger Middle East. With respect to this region, I am relying on the opinions of experts, particularly on the assessments of a friend, Col. (ret.) Jürgen Hübschen. He is a former military attaché in Iraq, who has been dealing with Middle Eastern affairs for three decades and has authored several books on the subject.

Hübschen stresses that the Assad regime is unquestionably a dictatorship which oppresses the Syrian opposition movement by brute force. The bloodshed in Syria must be stopped, but the all-decisive question is how to achieve this. He thinks the current directionality of the American – and also European – policy towards Syria is not facilitating an early end of the bloodshed. The real policy aim is not Syria’s democratization via political compromise, but “regime change”. The Obama administration has unambiguously stated: The Assad regime has to disappear. Humanitarian considerations vis-a-vis the plight of the Syrian people may be sincere but they are simultaneously used as packaging material for other – geopolitical – purposes.


Double Standards and Geopolitics

Hübschen thinks that the U.S. policy on Syria – and on the Middle East in general – is based on double standards. At the outbreak of the „Arab Spring“ in Tunisia a year ago, the U.S. was initially surprised and hesitant. But rather quickly, Washington shifted to emphatic support for the Arab democracy movement. However a closer look reveals that this support has not been wholesale but has depended case by case on specific geopolitical considerations.

Case 1: In Egypt, Washington could put up with the removal of its erstwhile protegé Mubarak, because a de-facto military dictatorship was installed. Whatever the way democracy will evolve in Egypt, the U.S.-vectored Egyptian military will remain a key power factor.

Case 2: When the “Arab Spring” reached Bahrain, where the U.S. maintains a large military base, there was no emphatic American support for the Shiite majority demanding democratic reforms. Quite the opposite: the U.S. approved of the military intervention by Saudi Arabia in Bahrain. The Shiite demonstrations were bloodily suppressed by Saudi troops.

Case 3: The fact that Saudi Arabia is a “dictatorship-monarchy” can hardly be denied. Political freedom and democracy are absent, human rights are ignored and and religious tolerance is unknown. However, any American pressure on the Saudi leadership to open up for democracy has not occurred.

Case 4: When the protests started in Libya against the Gaddafi dictatorship, the U.S. and European support for the democracy movement was in indeed emphatic – up to the point of NATO going to war to topple (and kill) the dictator. While Washington and European governments had entertained rather cosy relations with Gaddafi in recent years, “regime change” by force was obviously seen as a much more effective way to open up direct access to the resources of this energy-rich country.

Case 5: Assad’s Syria. Here, the U.S. is putting up an enormous effort to support the democracy movement and to squeeze and isolate the regime. The reason seems to be less geo-economic, but geopolitical. Syria has been targeted for “regime change” since more than a decade. A central motive for that are the close ties between Damascus and Teheran. “Regime change” in Syria would further isolate and decisively weaken Iran.

Moreover: While a large-scale U.S. or Israeli military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities remains highly unlikely, there is indeed a „silent war“: Serially, Iranian nuclear scientist get killed, mysterious crashes of Iranian military aircraft occur, and Iranian nuclear facilities are sabotaged – as with the Stuxnet cyber attack. That the Americans systematically penetrate Iranian airspace for spy missions, is apparent since the RQ-170 incident last December. What the Iranians are doing in reverse, is not known in the public. But for Teheran, Assad’s Syria and Hizbollah in Lebanon – the latter tied both to Syria and Iran – are certainly key leverage factors vis-a-vis Israel.

When talking about geopolitical interests underlying declaratory foreign policy, we must of course include Russia’s geopolitical interests in Syria, says Hübschen. First, Syria is a major market for Russian arms exports. Secondly, the Russian navy has a base in the Syrian port of Tartus. These are weighty factors why Moscow does not want see “regime change” in Damascus – and why Russia vetoed the UNSC resolution on Feb. 4.

Nevertheless, Hübschen finds the outrage over the Russian and Chinese veto in the UN Security Council rather strange. It’s the United States that have an extraordinary record of vetoes in respect to the Middle East. Last Autumn, there was a majority at the UN to recognize the Palestinian Authority under international law, it was the U.S. that prevented this, though Washington claims to support two-state solution. During the past decades, the U.S. vetoed almost any resolution that was criticizing or putting demands on Israel.

The “Round Table” Approach

But back to the crucial question how the current bloodshed in Syria can be ended? Hübschen sees only one way: A truce accepted by both the regime and the opposition, and a process towards a political “national unity” compromise. This means, however, that there would be no “unconditional surrender” of the Assad regime. He refers to Kadri Jamil, a leading politician of the „old“ Syrian opposition, which was suppressed by the regime for decades. Being interviewed in Damascus by Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Kadri Jamil said: „If someone makes the resignation of the President [Assad] the precondition for engaging in dialogue, what sense does dialogue make? “

If there is no national dialogue leading to a political compromise, the situation in Syria will likely descend into a civil war. The security apparatus loyal to Assad – at least 90% of the military, the intelligence agencies and special forces – will probably not succeed in annihilating the armed underground forces of the „Free Syrian Army“. The other way around, there is no realistic chance that the numerically very small underground forces can defeat the security forces loyal to Assad – even if the „Free Syrian Army“ were supplied with arms and other logistical support from outside Syria. Thus, the prospect would be a long-running, yet inconclusive civil war – with enormous bloodshed and Syria’s economic ruin.

A civil war would be horrific enough, but there is no assurance that, after a hypothetical victory of the armed underground and the ouster of the Assad regime, the situation might not get even worse. The Syrians do certainly remember what happened in neighboring Iraq after the fall of the dictator Saddam Hussein. The real nightmare for the Iraqi population only began after Saddam’s overthrow.

Like in Iraq, there is a great ethnic diversity in Syria: Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and more than a million Iraqi refugees. Equally, the religious diversity: Sunni, Shia-Alawites and Christians.

Expert opinions differ in their assessments of the percentage of the Syrian population still backing the Assad regime; it’s probably larger than what is generally assumed in the international media. The armed underground is only a small component of the Syrian opposition movement. The best guess is that the vast majority of the Syrian population wants the democratization of the country, but abhors a civil war. Thus, there seems to exist a popular basis for a political compromise solution.

One can assume that the Russian leadership knows perfectly well that there is no alternative to far-reaching democratic reforms in Syria and that the Assad regime has to give up its power monopoly. On Feb 7, Foreign Minister Lavrov visited Damascus. He stated: “On both sides there are actors who want armed conflict instead of dialogue… But both the government and all Syrian opposition groups have to sit down on the negotiating table… We will continue work with opposition groups which, for one reason or another, haven’t agreed until now to participate in general national dialogue… All external forces must assist in national dialogue and reaching a national agreement and reconciliation.” The latter is a reference to the Arab League and United Nations; it seems both organizations are taking heed of Lavrov’s advice. To sum things up: Russia seems to intend to play the role of the mediator between the Assad regime and the opposition.

Hübschen thinks that the concept of a „Round Table“ of the Assad regime and the opposition movement is not only reasonable, but so far the best chance for ending the bloodletting via political compromise leading to a „government of national unity“. He thinks that particularly Europe must back the “Round Table” concept and get constructively involved in the negotiation process. And, if the United States do really care for the Syrian people and its democratic aspirations, it should do likewise or at least not obstruct such a process.

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