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On vice-president Sharaa’s proposal for a political solution

... and why it should elicit a positive response

26. December 2012
Wilhelm Langthaler

The interview released by Syrian vice-president Faruq al-Sharaa is a strong signal from the regime’s side that they are eventually interested to commence a political process. In his statement, Sharaa not only insisted on a political solution (this is not new, there are many such statements from the regime), but also specified that no side can win militarily, and thus both sides will have to cede positions. That means that there is a readiness for concessions which until now could not be detected (this is indeed the new element in the situation).

It is, however, not quite clear which status this proposal has. Did the president approve it? We do not know. But Sharaa dared to speak out and he is still in office. It is obvious that there is a certain bandwidth of positions within the regime, and revolutionary politics must try to weaken the hardliners who are obviously also there.

Russia, the main backer of Assad, at the same time made it clear that they will not keep supporting Assad at any cost. This is on one hand a warning to Assad to create the preconditions for a transition, and on the other hand a signal to Moscow’s geo-political rivals that Russia is ready for a compromise. This is in line with the Iranian proposal as well. The change in these positions is that they moved away from elections under the current regime – which obviously cannot be accepted by any serious opposition – towards the acceptance of a transitional government, eventually removing Assad.

But what about the opposition? Do they acknowledge these changes, and how do they react to them?

The various currents of the domestic democratic opposition re-confirmed the historic stance they have been defending for the two years of the rebellion: they welcome any serious steps towards negotiations and a political solution. But to become serious, the regime needs to transform words into deeds. The original demands of the popular movement must be met: releasing the political prisoners, freedom of expression and organisation, halt the shelling of civilians and stop the massacres, withdraw the army. It is the side of the regime which needs to make the first step. If the people can see that the regime is serious, the democratic opposition will be able to call for a truce and sustain it. They might be able to influence the milieu of the armed rebellion or at least a part of it. But its main player is the mainstream opposition and their international backers.

So what about the foreign-backed opposition? They remain silent and eschew any political settlement. They try to hide behind the hardly convincing moralistic argument that the bloodshed has already reached dimensions too large to be ended by a political solution. Let us see the political factors that might influence their considerations:

This mainstream opposition, their backers as well as the media continue to trump up their military successes. They say that they are knocking at the gates of the palace in Damascus, that the regime can no more secure the airport, that the army has lost a series of military bases and that the rebels took the Yarmouk camp in the southern part of the capital. But if one takes a closer look, the successes are not so clear-cut any more and the picture changes into the image of a continued stalemate and a long war of attrition. The battle for Aleppo goes on, with incredible destruction but without any significant change of control. There are reports that the rebel’s onslaught on the airport or on the access corridor was repelled, inflicting heavy losses on them. The Yarmouk camp was actually taken, but later returned to Palestinian control.

The mainstream opposition is betting everything on the military card. Their small military advances serve them as confirmation. Publicly they state that as “final victory is not far away” there is no use for a political settlement with the regime. They have been doing so already throughout 2012.

At first, the mainstream opposition had hoped for full military support and intervention of the west. But after the re-election of Obama it has become clear that this intervention is not going to happen. The US considers an aggressive imperialist line as counter-productive, and has embarked on a more cautious approach.

The consequence is the rapid growth of Sunni Islamist Jihadi forces within Syria spearheaded by the Nusra front, as reported in the media. They have military expertise and sophisticated arms. They have a powerful system of funding, centred on the Gulf. They are not, however, puppets of the Gulf states and they are not under their direct command. Their network has been built to sustain also the pressure from these regimes if asked by Washington – though in these specific circumstances both the Gulf states as well as the US seem to tolerate the influx of money.

The political representatives of the mainstream opposition abroad always refused to speak of sectarianism and civil war. They insisted that it is all about a popular revolution. They have been partially right, as the regime did its best to also paint the democratic popular movement as an Islamist Jihadist monster. But at the same time it not credible to deny the existence of sectarianism as an aspect of reality. The powerful development of Nusra et al. is crystal clear evidence for the role sectarianism plays in the conflict. And it is not only Jihadism. There is a wide range of sectarianism reaching also the more secular milieus. (Vice versa, the ability of the Assad regime to maintain itself cannot be explained without a sectarian communalist momentum.) By embarking on militarism, the mainstream opposition has been feeding sectarianism.

Groups like Nusra aren’t revolutionary forces, they are civil war troops. They might secure some military successes for the opposition, but politically they play in favour of the regime and its more than reciprocates its sectarian approach. Actually it is a great confirmation for Assad’s narrative. Not only does a UN report warn of the overtly sectarian character of the conflict has acquired. The most reliable proof is that authoritative people from the Sunni sphere are criticising the sectarian threats emanating from the Jihadis. Minorities, liberal middle classes, the democratic left and even moderate Islamic people fear the Jihadis – though in different intensity. If we assume that the regime represents only a minority, with the very same right we can assume that the majority is against the Jihadis. So at the end of the day, the growth of Jihadism politically weakens the opposition. It closes the ranks of the regime’s camp and keeps the undecided away from the opposition. The fact that the mainstream opposition defended Nusra shows both their militarist approach and their political weakness. They are far away from providing a political platform based on democracy for the majority of the Syrians.

In case the conflict degenerates into a full-fledged communal civil war, it will hardly be won by either side. Even if the Assad regime loses more and more territorial control and eventually will be unseated, the war may drag on as the minority communities might try to defend themselves against perceived or real threats. Such a war would wreak havoc on the country and the loser would be the Syrian people. The Lebanese civil war which lasted more than one decade should serve as an example not to be followed.

The deeper meaning of a political solution

Many argue that a political solution is not a realistic possibility, given the domestic and international contradictions. Even the UN special envoy, Brahimi, warned of any hopes.

First of all the struggle for a political solution is critical to cushion and to push back sectarianism. Only by putting forward a political solution, which implies to accept the other communities as partners, a majority for a democratic transformation across all communal groups can be rallied. The conflict can be redirected to political and societal conceptions and not interpreted along confessional group identities. Any armed conflict is very likely to be read in a sectarian manner. Therefore the revolutionary democratic struggle must strive to remain peaceful or at least defensive as long as possible and counter any type of sectarian views that would lead to a descent into sectarian civil war.

The project of a political solution at the same time sends a decisive signal to Russia and Iran: “We will not fall in the hands of the US camp, and we are ready to take your interests into account.” Moscow has been hesitating to drop Assad for the lack of an alternative. If a transitional government is built in co-operation with them, securing a kind of geo-political neutrality of a democratic Syria, Russia will eventually accept it. They know that sooner or later the Assad regime will fall, and they risk to lose everything if they do not embark on a compromise in time. But such a compromise needs two sides.

Actually the clear-cut rejection of a political solution by the mainstream opposition reveals their dependence on their international and regional backers. Though it is wrong to assume (as the regime’s narrative suggests) that the entire opposition movement is in the hands of the US bloc, its political representation is, for it reduces the conflict to its military dimension. As long as they believe that they are able to make military headway by foreign support, they will stick to their position.

So the reckonings of the foreign backers are a decisive element:

The easiest to understand are the Gulf regimes. They act in an anti-Iranian function and simply want to inflict as much harm as possible on their enemy without contemplating much on how to resolve the conflict. They will carry on as long as the US does not rein them in.

Turkey is a different matter. Ankara had hoped for a quick victory of the rebellion, which would have extended their reach. So they dumped their tested policy of “zero problems with the neighbour”, as they aspire to be the role model for an Islamic democracy. As the Assad regime has been able to hang on, Turkey has been moving more and more into an impasse. The bold military option is almost off the table. Neither the US would back it, nor would Turkish society. But withdrawing the political support to the opposition would mean for Erdoğan to lose face. The only possible way out is to participate in a political solution. There are some signs pointing into that direction.

Egypt was reborn as a regional power only two years ago. It cannot continue to play Washington’s puppet but will strive to acquire some margin of independence. As Egypt is the centre of the Arab spring, they are seen as a threat by the Saudi regime. Their main challenge is relations with Iran, which they will try to relax. Therefore Cairo will not be an obstacle for a political solution either.

So it is once again Washington which is the main player and got the last word. There cannot be any doubt that they politically back the mainstream opposition – but not at any cost. Those who believe that the US are happy with chaos and eternal civil war, weakening Syria as a whole, are wrong. In an overall situation of growing US weakness, chaos and insecurity are increasing the threats to the system and strengthening the position of the US’s enemies. They fear a spill-over across the entire region further weakening their influence. Therefore the US is certainly interested in a settlement, but they also feel that they are in a position to score some points against an old enemy.

The latest move was to recognise the mainstream opposition as the representative of the Syrian people, but at the same time the US excluded the Jihadists, listing them as terrorists. This reflects mistrust and imposes conditions. Nor did they allow the formation of an exile government which shows that they are sceptical of the opposition’s prospects to seize power. Washington has not excluded a political settlement, but it tries to impose the conditions and the price. They have the time to poker, while for Russia time is running short.

So eventually a political settlement does not at all seem impossible. Just the time and the price remains to be set. What could be sacrificed in a power-sharing agreement are important democratic demands of the people – demands that most of the global and regional players dislike or even fear.

From a democratic revolutionary and anti-imperialist point of view, the campaign for a political solution leads into the opposite direction. The momentum of the democratic and social revolution of the popular masses should be unleashed. It ultimately is directed against imperialism and its local allies. At the moment, the states that oppose US hegemony seem juxtaposed against the democratic movement. Only through a political solution, this dangerous roadblock can be removed.

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