With the foreign-instigated war on Syria into its fifth year, is there room for optimism about a possible end to the bloodletting? Recent developments give rise to guarded optimism that there may be a dim flicker of light at the end of Syria’s long dark tunnel. It would, however, be prudent not to assume that peace will descend on Syria tomorrow. That may still be a long way away but it appears there is much greater awareness among all parties involved, especially foreign backers of the takfiri terrorists, who realize they have created a monster that needs to be brought under control before it devours them as well.
The most optimistic sign in this whole saga is that of Russia’s active engagement in trying to bridge the gap between various Syrian factions, their foreign sponsors and the government in Damascus. Russian President Vladimir Putin has become personally involved and has staked his reputation on bringing an end to the Syrian conflict through political means. This is a very significant development even if a tall order at present.
Similarly, the failure of the terrorist groups to make greater headway that they thought was imminent a few weeks ago thanks to large shipments of weapons from Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, has dampened their spirits even if they control significant swathes of Syrian territory bordering Turkey. President Recep Tayip Erodgan has openly supported the terrorists with weapons as well as intelligence. Like the Zionist regime, Turkey also provides treatment to wounded terrorists in its hospitals. The Americans have also not ended their support for the terrorists even if they continue to insist they are only supporting the “moderates.”
Despite this, the situation in Syria has become less favorable for the terrorists and their foreign sponsors. Several developments account for this. Perhaps June 19 can be cited as the starting point of the changed circumstances. While visiting Moscow for what was billed as opening a new chapter in Saudi-Russian relations, the young Saudi Defence Minister/Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman instead got a lesson in statecraft. Putin, Russia’s seasoned spymaster and strongman, lectured the young Saudi prince about the futility of backing takfiri terrorists that pose a far greater risk to the Saudi regime itself than they have to the Syrian government. The Saudi deputy crown prince is reported to have admitted to his Russian host that King Salman was not in favor of the Kingdom’s current policy on Syria. He also extended the Saudi king’s invitation to Putin to visit the Kingdom that the Russian leader accepted. Perhaps, the Saudis no longer consider the Russians to be infidels or godless communists!
Putin was looking for an opening that the young Saudi prince provided. He told his guest that regional dynamics had changed radically and that there was no military solution to the crisis in Syria. The Saudis should overcome their obsession with overthrowing Bashar al-Asad’s government. Instead, the Russian president proposed that a common front be established to confront the takfiri terrorists. This would comprise Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Aware of Saudi sensitivities, Putin did not include Iran in the proposed group although he knew that without Tehran’s support, the idea would not succeed. Much to Putin’s surprise, the Saudi defence minister/deputy crown prince immediately agreed.
The idea was so incredible that ten days later (June 29) when Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim visited Moscow and Putin informed him of the proposal, the Syrian foreign minister exclaimed, “it would require a miracle.” The miracle materialized on July 7 when Russia’s deputy intelligence chief landed in Damascus and took General ‘Ali Mamluk, chief of the Syrian Home Security, with him to Riyadh. Prince Muhammad bin Salman received the Syrian general. Also present at the meeting was Saudi intelligence chief Saleh al-Humaidan.
Ibn Salman was in a conciliatory mood, chastened by the Kingdom’s failures in Syria and Yemen. The takfiris now pose a serious threat to the rule of Bani Saud as has become apparent from the suicide bombing in Abha early last month. While most media reports have focused on takfiri infiltration into the Kingdom, there are tens of thousands of zealots, the poisoned fruit of Wahhabism who already reside in the kingdom. The regime has realized the danger it faces from within.
Ibn Salman told his Syrian visitor that “ignorant men” (referring to the late King Abdullah and Bandar bin Sultan) had crafted the Kingdom’s Syria policy but that King Salman was not in favor of it. He also admitted that the Kingdom controlled Da‘ish (the takfiri terrorists) and support would be withdrawn from them but there was a small favor the Saudis wanted in return: Hizbullah’s withdrawal from Syria. This was a clear admission by the Saudi defence minister of the crucial role Hizbullah has played and continues to play in preventing the takfiri terrorists from gaining more ground in Syria. Only a few weeks earlier, the takfiris were boasting that al-Asad would be gone before the end of Ramadan. Recent reports from Syria indicate that the Syrian army backed by Hizbullah fighters, has driven out the takfiris from virtually all of Zabadani, north of Damascus. Once Zabadani is cleared of the terrorist menace, the road between Damascus and Beirut would be completely open.
Other developments also point toward a convergence of the political-diplomatic track away from the military option in Syria. Over two days last month (August 13 and 14) various Syrian opposition groups were hosted in Moscow for detailed discussions about the future of Syria. In the past Syrian opposition groups met in Turkey, Paris or Qatar; now they were all heading to Moscow that is seen as the principal backer of the Syrian government. Haytham Manna, head of the Local Coordination Committees, who has opposed the military option from the beginning of the Syrian crisis, again reiterated the futility of armed conflict and urged a political solution. Khaled Khoja, who heads the Syrian National Coalition of Opposition Forces, continued to parrot the old line that al-Asad had no role in any transitional setup. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told him that al-Asad had to be an integral part of the solution since he was fighting the terrorists. While Russia is not wedded to any individual, al-Asad enjoys the support of the Syrian people, Lavrov told the Syrian opposition groups.
As part of the changed political environment, a number of Arabian rulers that hitherto went on pilgrimage to the White House seeking support are now heading to the Kremlin. The rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, and the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are expected to visit Russia before the end of 2015. This clearly indicates Russia’s enhanced status as well as deeper engagement with the region.
Russia’s message is clear: the takfiris pose a far greater threat to the region than the continued rule of Bashar al-Asad in Syria who in any case has the support of a substantial segment of the Syrian population. The takfiri menace must be confronted through a collaborative process. The message seems to have sunk in even if Syrian opposition groups continue to insist that al-Asad must go. It was this untenable policy that resulted in the failure of Geneva I (June 2012) and Geneva II (February 2014). The Russians have made clear that there would be no more Genevas, whether III or IV. Those interested in confronting terrorism need to get on board the new robust Russian policy.
Simultaneously, officials of Western intelligence agencies as well as officials from a number of Arabian regimes have visited Damascus in recent weeks. Western intelligence agents are sharing notes with their Syrian counterparts about the takfiri threat even though several Western intelligence agencies are playing a double role by supporting the takfiris. This includes British, American and Canadian intelligence agencies.
Kuwait has opened its consulate in the Syrian capital while the UAE sent a delegation to review the opening of its embassy there. This would not have been possible even a few months earlier. So what has changed in recent weeks to bring about such a profound change in thinking, at least among the Arabian rulers who were hitherto hell-bent on getting rid of al-Asad? While they have virtually destroyed Syria as a country and set it back by decades, the monsters they have unleashed are now posing a threat to their own survival.
There is also realization that the US, their former chief patron, is no longer able to wage another war in the region using American ground troops. In his August 5 speech, Obama admitted as much when he chastised people that had gotten America into the disastrous war in Iraq in 2003. He was speaking in the context of those Americans opposing the P5+1 deal with Iran over its peaceful nuclear program.
The Arabian rulers have also seen that despite their strong opposition, the US went ahead with a nuclear deal with Iran (whether it will hold is a different matter). They are thus scurrying to protect their flanks and make quick adjustments lest events overtake them. It may be too late but they are not giving up without trying, hence their pilgrimage to Moscow.
Russia’s stated position that the Syrian crisis must be resolved through a political process by the Syrians themselves without outside interference has also been endorsed by the UN Security Council. On August 17, the Council approved a plan calling for an intra-Syrian “political process” to end the crisis in Syria. The 15-member council’s statement endorsed the initiative by the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, which calls for resolving the Syrian crisis through talks among “intra-Syrian working groups.”
The statement further emphasized “the only sustainable solution to the current crisis in Syria is through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.” The peace initiative is to be launched this month. While this has been going on, Iran has proposed its own four-point solution to the crisis. It includes the following:
1. immediate ceasefire so that peace and security can be established;
2. nternationally supervised free and fair elections in which all parties would be allowed to participate;
3. the winning party would nominate the prime minister; and
4. this would be followed by presidential elections in which incumbent Bashar al-Asad would be one of the candidates.
Iran’s proposal was shared with the Syrian Foreign Minister and Russian deputy foreign minister when they both visited Tehran on August 4. This was followed by the Iranian Foreign Minister Dr. Javad Zarif’s visit to Damascus on August 12 to discuss these proposals directly with Bashar al-Asad. Even Oman has become involved in the reconciliation process. Of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Oman has followed an independent path and has thus earned respect in the region.
Given all these developments and breath-taking visits to Damascus, Tehran and Moscow, it appears momentum for a political solution to the five-year-old Syrian crisis may be building up. How soon a solution will emerge is difficult to predict but what is becoming clear is that al-Asad’s staying power backed by the people that are horrified by the barbaric conduct of the takfiris has put paid to the plans of foreign regimes that were determined to overthrow Bashar al-Asad and plant a pro-Saudi, pro-Zionist regime in Damascus. That now appears a forlorn quest. The sooner it sinks in and gains wider acceptance, the better for all parties concerned, especially the long-suffering people of Syria.