By William Pfaff
International sentiment favoring foreign intervention in Syria’s crisis can only have been strengthened by recent evidence of how divorced Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seems now to be from the reality of what is taking place in his country.
His Sunday address to a newly elected Syrian Parliament consisted of still more of his familiar harangue holding foreign interests and international terrorists—al-Qaida included—responsible for the civil uprising in his country. According to the U.N., this conflict now has claimed 10,000 or more civilian victims.
The president spoke as though his reforms and new constitution have fully met the demands of the Syrian citizenry, a large number of whom remain (to him) incomprehensibly hostile to his government. Of the massacre in the village of Houla that preceded his address, he said that not even “monsters” could have committed such an act, although international observers insist that it was irregular auxiliaries of his own army who were responsible. It is possible to imagine that this unfortunate man, snatched from his quiet ophthalmological practice in London to become hereditary dictator of Syria, is indeed as witless as he seems, and that others of the Assad family or entourage, the hard men, are in control of unhappy Syria.
For Western hawks, the (provisionally) successful NATO intervention in the Libyan revolt has been a seductive precedent. There are people in some Washington circles and in Israel who see in the Syrian situation an opportunity to overthrow or disarm still another enemy, and by ricochet weaken Iran as well.
The reaction of Hillary Clinton and some others in the West has been in the full Cold War mode, denouncing the Russians as obstacles to peace. In fact, the Russians could be very useful in finding a settlement and seem to ask simply that their own interests in the Middle East be respected.
Syria is a big and relatively sophisticated and wealthy society.
It is not a desert kingdom, easily conquered. With the Middle East in its present disorder, it is hard to see that the United States—or Israel—could find an advantage in adding more war to the quasi-civil-war that now exists in Syria. Even Henry Kissinger has cautious counsel: “In reacting to one tragedy, we must be careful not to facilitate another.”
The Kofi Annan initiative, directed by the U.N., has evoked little enthusiasm in Western circles because Russia, with China, has obstructed progress, unwilling to cede the Russian stake in Syria, and its military presence there, to a Western-oriented solution, which is what Moscow must see as the likely outcome of international action. There are, on the other hand, signs of Russian willingness to consider a solution that is not construed as a zero-sum contest and which preserves its interests, which, as it has told an intermediary, extend to the preservation of Syrian state integrity, but not to the defense of the Assad regime.
The leader of one of the Syrian opposition groups, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, has recently returned from Russia with a useful account of the thinking there. In an interview with the French press (Le Figaro), Haytham Manna says that Russia wishes Syria to survive as a functioning state with its territorial integrity preserved, and a reformed army, based on leaders who have not been implicated in the repression, able to rally loyalty from all of the national communities in the country. He says dialogue can be established with uncompromised Syrian generals anxious to save their nation from the regime.
According to this account, Russia has some 1,200 civilians and military experts in Syria, many of them having been there for years. He says that, because of the years of military and civil cooperation between the two countries, there is a community in Russia and Syria that includes some 50,000 Russo-Syrian married couples, and a large cadre of Arab-speaking Russians who have worked for many years in Syria and that includes people intimately connected with the Syrian government and the civilian economic and political establishment—among them figures close to Vladimir Putin.
Russia, according to this information, is willing to see the essentials of the regime on the negotiating table, including the existing Syrian security apparatus, which has been the servant of the Assads for too many years, rather than of the nation. Asked what should or would follow the Assad regime, these Russians reply that this is the decision of the Syrian people.
The Russians envisage “global” negotiations which would maintain the army as a guarantee of the nation, and would expect a new Syria to follow a “balanced” international policy. Their proposal would reduce the present influence of Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood on the Syrian opposition, and on a solution. It would perhaps allow President Assad to resume his medical practice in London. Whether his regime—and the hard men in it—are today in sufficiently serious disarray as to allow such a solution is unknown, but seems worth exploring.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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