Spotlight West Asia

Syria Today: Is Regime Change the Answer?

03 Feb, 2014    ·   4285

Amb Ranjit Gupta on the current situation within Syria and what should be the focus of Geneva-II talks

Ranjit Gupta
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow
There are three aspects of the Syrian imbroglio: First, what was originally a political struggle has become a progressively more devastating civil war. Second, those fighting against the Assad regime have fragmented into several distinct and contending elements - the Western and Gulf countries’ backed Syrian National Coalition, now the weakest of the opposition groups in terms of fighting ability; a large array of Islamist groups, many armed and funded by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, significant numbers of whom have come together under two different Islamist fronts; the Nabhat Al Nusrah, an effective fighting unit largely composed of Syrians but an affiliate of Al Qaeda; and, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an Al Qaeda outfit, consisting mainly of Iraqis, the most extremist, brutal and effective fighting unit, whose agenda goes much beyond the mere removal of Assad and is the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamist Emirate. The involvement of so many different groups makes the possibility of any solution very difficult. Third, the active involvement of foreign countries – France, Iran, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UK and the US; this has led directly to Syria getting to the point where it is now. The enormous complexity of the situation should be self evident.

Those advocating regime change need to seriously ponder over the fact that that the internal situation today in both Iraq and Libya is far worse than it was when Saddam and Gaddhafi were in power. Intrusive military interventions by foreign countries in Libya and Iraq are not examples to be emulated but shunned.  Indeed, externally encouraged efforts towards regime change in Arab countries must stop forthwith. Given the current ground realities in Syria and its diverse ethnic and sectarian makeup, regime change in Syria could lead to a much worse outcome than in those two countries, even the breakup of the country with deeply destabilizing consequences for the Levant as a whole.

In the past year Assad has regained a lot of lost ground. All other opposition rebels are now spending greater effort fighting the ISIL considering it a more detestable and dangerous enemy than the Assad regime. The very recent Turkish air strike on a convoy of the ISIL and Premier Erdogan’s visit to Iran suggest that Turkey is rethinking its policy in Syria. There is increasing reluctance of Western countries’ to aid rebels fearing that arms will fall into the hands of extremist groups. Thus, Assad is much stronger today vis-a-vis both his domestic and international adversaries than in June 2012 when the first Geneva conference “agreed on guidelines and principles for a political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people”. It is now increasingly highly unlikely that Assad can be defeated on the battleground. Therefore, he is hardly likely to agree to his handing over power in a conference room. Pursuing regime change now is a no brainer. 

Humanitarian issues such as ensuring that aid should reach the millions in dire distress and urgently attending to the desperate conditions of the 4 million plus internally displaced should be accorded top priority. The second priority must be addressing the growing violence much of which, for all practical purposes, has now morphed into pure terrorism. Geneva II can be said to represent the beginning of a peace process and an encouraging sign is agreement that the next meeting will be held starting Feb 10th.  

Another hopeful feature of Geneva II was, in the words of UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, “there is of course agreement (amongst the fighting entities) that terrorism …is a very serious problem inside Syria but there's no agreement on how to deal with it”. Another good omen is that both sides of internal Syrian conflict observed a minutes silence together to remember those killed. Now that a door has been opened, the warring parties within Syria need to pursue these two issues on a priority basis. However, the boycott of hard line extremists suggests that in the unlikely event of any agreement, its implementation would be sabotaged. This is a risk that will have to be taken and should not become an excuse for no action.  

Iran was not represented even though the UN Secretary General had invited it; the invite had to be withdrawn due to strong US opposition. Iran commands the greatest influence with Assad; Iran and Russia acting in tandem are the only two countries that can persuade Assad to make meaningful compromises. Iran’s participation therefore is absolutely vital to the success of any conference on Syria. 

An agreement amongst the main players – the patrons of the different contending parties within Syria: the P- 5, EU, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey - on a common approach is a prerequisite. Therefore a separate conference involving them should be held soonest possible complementing a resumption of the Geneva II talks on February 10. A priority subject should be taking on the ISIL and similar extremist groups head on.