Research studiesعاجل

How to Deal with Russia, Assad, and the Opposition: A Plan for Syria in 2017

Democratic Arab Center

For any US administration, there is always a degree of tension between political risks and the demands of a global leadership role. Aids to any given president are generally divided in two camps.

The first group is comprised of those aids who claim they are protecting the presidency from domestic political attacks. They are the keepers of his legacy and give secondary, or even lower, priority to considerations related to global leadership, if political risks are part of the package. They want to play safe in a very dangerous world.

Those who go above narrow political considerations and think instead of this issue in whole belong in the second group. They understand the deep link between US national interests in general and its global leadership. They correctly see the president as a leader of a country, not a political celebrity.

This divide is not a feature of a specific administration or a president. Rather, it is a reflection of the political culture in the US, built through centuries of natural isolation, vibrant domestic political life, and a focus on the individual person’s ability to comprehend complex phenomena. In turn, this culture looks at the external world as “dangerous,” and has a very limited grasp of how the world functions or even its nature, much less the patience to understand its complexity.

The next US administration will be no exception. In fact, the more the US integrates itself into a world rapidly shrinking due to technology and trade, the more this tension will rise in Washington’s political life.

This tension will certainly appear in the next administration. It will have impact the Middle East, which has been an integral part of the US political scene for the last three decades. In Afghanistan, the Cold War ended. In Iraq, the US slid into the worst debt crisis in its history. Because of the region, the US had to impose draconian security measures which, in many cases, stirred a debate about the balance between privacy and individual liberties and countering terrorism. Whether the public likes it or not, the Middle East has become a part of the US’s domestic political landscape.

There is no way to avoid the internal tension in the next administration between the legacy advocates and the strategic thinkers. Yet, the US has reached a point where the triumph of the legacy camp during the Obama years has caused catastrophic consequences. The US has suffered strategic losses worldwide.  The greatest disservice done by the current administration is that it theoretically justified those losses as a necessary price.  Apparently, these moves were not meant to keep the president’s legacy intact, but to preserve the wellbeing of the US. This is possibly the worst contribution the Obama Administration made to US political culture.

But what should the next administration do in the Middle East so that the US can play a leading role?

Diplomacy cannot be successful unless it is based on the fear that the involved parties must pay a price if they do not take the diplomatic path. Even those who surrender in wars understand that continuation of the conflict will entail further destruction without any real return. All people think of risks and potential gains, calculating and weighing one against the other. In order to see this principle playing out in the East Mediterranean, for example, we must examine the balance of force there and see how it can change to furnish a proper base for successful diplomacy.

A NATO buildup of military capabilities in the East Mediterranean should not automatically imply a war with Russia or with anyone else. It simply means providing the framework for an active diplomatic role. But first, the contours of the objective – the diplomatic solution – should be clearly defined.

No one wants Syria to fall into the hands of extremists. A reasonable compromise that combines the remnants of the current state structure and the relatively moderate opposition forces, armed and unarmed, is the middle ground that guarantees Syria will be put back together sustainably.

Defining a reasonable end game along these lines will be an organizing principle of the objectives of a NATO military buildup. The objective should contrast sharply with the fiasco we witnessed in Iraq and Libya. The absolute restrictive line of any muscle flexing in the East Mediterranean is to preserve the structure of the Syrian state, firmly trim the objectives of both sides of the Syrian civil war, and smoothly transition the country to a period of national healing and reconstruction.

For such an objective to be realized, a sufficient force must be deployed, preferably based on an overwhelming missile firepower. The nature of Russia’s military deployment in that region is based principally on Granit, Mig-31 BMs, Ka-27, Ka-52, SU-33K, MiG-29K, potentially SU-25 and SU-34, various components of air defense systems (SA-N-6 “Grumble), S-300 and S-400’s. and a limited assortment of naval assets.

The emphasis, as we see clearly, is on air power. And this is where the conflict should be settled before it starts. If NATO is to deploy overwhelmingly superior missile capabilities, it will be evident to the Russian leadership that it might be a good idea to accept a political solution, particularly if the proposed solution is far from any zero-sum maximalist plans.

Iran and Bashar Al Assad will desperately try to torpedo in the new direction. Ironically, this may take the form of knocking on the White House doors with new concessions. The US could reshape the outcome. Many avenues could be opened.

If Russia agrees to get back to the negotiating table, seriously this time, its allies on the ground will be weakened, although they will not give up their fight instantly. Their only space to maneuver would be the understanding that the US does not want Syria to fall into the hands of extremists. They will try to use this fact as much as possible to their advantage.

This requires a detailed “end-game” plan put forward and announced publicly at the beginning of this East Mediterranean endeavor. Everyone should know beforehand how things will end before they start walking down this road.

However, Russia is currently taking a quiet, diplomatic approach with certain Arab capitals, an approach based on offering a general and comprehensive solution to the regional crisis. The offer aims, not ambiguously, to reduce US influence in the region. The diplomatic technique has been visible for few weeks now and is an attempt to exploit the tensions between some Arab countries and Washington.

But still, it would be a terrible mistake to disregard Russia or provoke any military action against its forces. A considerable military buildup suffices to get the message through to the Kremlin. President Putin respects only the language of force. If the endgame addresses the core of Russia’s concerns in Syria, it will be obvious to the Kremlin that very costly charlatanism is a foolish option.

Furthermore, it would be a mistake either to enable violent jihadists to rule Syria or to allow Assad to continue his reckless dictatorial rule. If the US is accused of regime change, even when it was the Syrians in hundreds of villages and towns who demonstrated to topple Assad’s fear machine, Russia should be accused of defending regimes that do everything to stay in power and refuse to carry out any meaningful political reforms.

The first step the new administration should take in Syria is to draw a clear strategy based on supporting the relatively moderate Syrian opposition groups, starting a military buildup in the East Mediterranean, and announcing a reasonable end game for the war to sort out the opposition groups and to address Moscow’s concerns.

Those steps should come before any projects like a no-fly-zone or a safe zone. Zones of that kind are out-of-context so long as they are not part of an integral approach to change the balance of power in three areas: between Russia and the West in the East Mediterranean; between Assad, the Iranians, and Hezbollah on the one hand and the opposition on the other hand; and between the relatively moderate opposition forces and the radical violent groups.

A public end game, however general in terms, is central as an organizing tool. If this plans preserves the essence of the Syrian state and proposes a democratic regime, the next administration should proceed to support the forces that adopt positive positions. As there will be no place for Assad, there is no place for groups that espouse sectarianism, terrorism, and totalitarianism, disguised under religious veils.

The objective should be to change the balance of force inside and around Syria. Assad must leave during a transitional period, if it unfolds smoothly, and a new Syria should emerge. Kicking the Russians out of Syria is not a legitimate objective for the Americans to pursue. It is up to the new Syria to determine who it befriends and who it expels.

It is a terrible conceptual error to try to design precise paths to peace in Syria so long as the balance of forces is tilted around and inside the country. Raising issues like free zones or a Taif-like deal is like putting the cart before the horse. The right concept is to first change the balance within, without a specific predetermined direction. Having a decisive say in the evolution of the conflict opens avenues that we cannot see or predict at present. Force multipliers are generated in a constant accompanying process. In fact, the results of such an endeavor will affect many other areas, such as relations with Russia, global dynamics, Iran-US ties, and regional peace.

However, the point of departure for the new administration is clear. It should be changing the balance of force, determining publicly the general features of a new Syria, and planning to rebuild the country through a global effort. Working on the elements of such a strategy will require integrating diplomacy and military force, and a degree of calculated pressure on many parties. But it is worth it. The world cannot take another decade of destruction and violence in the Middle East.

Source : Middle East Briefing


المركز الديمقراطى العربى

المركز الديمقراطي العربي مؤسسة مستقلة تعمل فى اطار البحث العلمى والتحليلى فى القضايا الاستراتيجية والسياسية والاقتصادية، ويهدف بشكل اساسى الى دراسة القضايا العربية وانماط التفاعل بين الدول العربية حكومات وشعوبا ومنظمات غير حكومية.

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