The five permanent members of the UN Security Council will meet on Saturday with several other regional players (excluding Iran?) to hash out a plan to end the violence in Syria. UN envoy Kofi Annan seems to have persuaded* Syria’s biggest ally, Russia, to support an internationally enforced political transition that would include parts of the current government as well as “opposition members,” whoever they are. Reuters:
“It could comprise present government members, opposition and others, but would need to exclude those whose continued participation or presence would jeopardize the transition’s credibility, or harm prospects for reconciliation and stability,” a diplomat said, summarizing Annan’s proposal.
The diplomat added that the idea of excluding certain people was clearly referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, though Annan’s proposal does not explicitly say Assad could not serve in a national unity government.
This seems to be an adoption of what Amitai Etzioni, writing at the National Interest, described as a “third option” for Syria. He said instead of pressuring Assad to reach a settlement with the rebels and instead of outright unilateral regime change by the West, “They should seek to force Bashar al-Assad out while not upending the regime. In other words, get other members of the Assad regime to remove him while leaving the regime intact.”
As for toppling the regime, this is a dangerous move. Those who warn against it correctly point out that the forces seeking to replace Assad may be equally brutal, could engage in ethnic cleansing as Libyan rebels did, or worse. One also cannot ignore that there are chemical weapons that may fall into the hands of groups extremely hostile to the West. Besides, Russia and China are dead set against such action.
Thus, the West—and whoever cares to join—should make it clear that Assad and his policies are the issue and that those around him (especially the generals) should replace him.
Not to get into semantics, but this still qualifies as regime change. And in fact, regime change has been the goal from the moment the US began supporting the rebels. As Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and an expert on Syria, wrote in Foreign Policy this month, “Let’s be clear: Washington is pursuing regime change by civil war in Syria.”
Furthermore, Etzioni argues that in order to help this so-called “third option” along, we should engage in “selective bombing of command-and-control centers, especially the number-one post where Assad works.” Turns out, this was the approach to Gadhafi in Libya: NATO was bombing the country relentlessly and targeting locations where they expected Gadhafi to be. Incidentally, this was in violation of US law, since the Reagan administration (ironically) signed an Executive Order banning the assassination of foreign leaders.
The prevailing issue in terms of the international politics of the conflict in Syria is and has been what I’ve called a problem of intervention. The only way Russia would agree to drop its support of Assad and oversee any kind of partial regime change is if they could be assured that Washington and its allies would not try to exploit a political transition for their own interests, which is virtually an impossibility.
Leaving aside for a second the obvious objections to having essentially five world powers decide who ought to rule over millions of Syrians, any plan coming out of Saturday’s meeting ought to include a demand for these powers to quit meddling for either side. James Dobbins, director of the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center and a former US assistant secretary of state told NPR recently what Antiwar.com has been saying throughout this conflict, that foreign meddling on behalf of all sides in Syria has been instrumental in prolonging the conflict by emboldening both sides and making a political settlement more remote. “The intensity of the divisions in the country,” Dobbins said, “the external environment in which sides are providing arms to both of the contending parties—all of that suggests that the situation’s going to continue to deteriorate.”
There has been nothing in the news to suggest that Annan plans to include a bombing campaign in his recommendations for a partial political transition. In fact, he has been quite consistently opposed to direct military action against Assad, repeatedly warning what everybody beyond the pro-war hawks in Washington understand, that such action would make the situation catastrophically worse. Annan commented this week that “Syria is not Libya, it will not implode, it will explode beyond its borders.”
*Update: Russia has denied claims that it was warming to Annan’s new plan. Moscow officials now say they will not back any plan that forces Assad out of power.