Thursday, October 4, 2012

Syrian military elite could be weaned away from Assad

Last week the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, declared that the Syrian army had moved its chemical weapons to better protect them. This came amid reports that the United States believed that the main sites where such weapons were stored remained secured.

While Mr Panetta's remarks could be interpreted in various ways, he was clearly attempting to sound a reassuring note. The Obama administration fears that chemical and biological weapons might end up in the hands of militant groups, above all Hizbollah, which could then deploy them against Israel. That the regime of President Bashar Al Assad, instead, appeared to be maintaining control over the weapons was good news to the administration.

This leads us to a broader question, namely what the foundations of possible negotiations for a resolution of the Syrian conflict might look like. For now the notion of talks seems ludicrous amid the escalating violence. We may indeed be heading towards a military endgame in Syria. However, prolonged stalemate is more likely in the interim. The fact that the Free Syrian Army is being under-supplied and is not receiving weaponry that would allow it to decisively shift the military balance in its favour is, partly, a consequence of US reluctance to allow jihadists to seize the initiative in the rebellion.

The strangling of military supplies is not designed to force the rebels to the negotiating table. However, persistent deadlock makes more probable an eventual time-out in the fighting, followed by bargaining. This may not prove decisive, and an interim might be used by both sides to reinforce themselves. However the international community is looking for any opening. The Obama administration, plainly, prefers a negotiated outcome, albeit one that leads to the departure of Mr Al Assad, whose presence is the principal obstacle to peace.

Syria's allies in Beirut suggest that the Syrian president is no longer in effective control of military operations on the ground. Rather, the armed forces and intelligence services are said to be functioning with a wide margin of freedom. This raises interesting questions, if true. Assuming the army sought to deliver a positive message by relocating some of its chemical weapons to safer locations, was it thinking in the context of a quid pro quo with the Americans?

If so, Mr Al Assad and his family may become the weak link in any future arrangement. Already, the president's sister has reportedly left Syria for the UAE. Her husband, Assef Shawkat, was killed in a bomb attack that some observers continue to believe was an inside job by the regime, to be rid of a man who sought a less brutal strategy for dealing with the uprising. There is no evidence for this, but nor is there convincing evidence that the opposition was behind the July 18 blast that killed Mr Shawkat and several high-ranking officials.

Senior officers in the Syrian military and intelligence services, especially the Alawites among them who dominate these institutions, must sense that if they eventually hope to preserve a measure of authority, they will have to engineer a transition away from the Assads. This would play into the conventional wisdom that no solution can be found in Syria that fails to address the interests of Alawites and other religious minorities.

What is it that the Americans and their allies want, and what is it the Alawite elite wants? The Americans want Mr Al Assad out, so that they can then calm the situation, stabilise Syria's neighbours and prevent jihadists from consolidating their presence in Syria. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia largely share these concerns. But the Turkish aim is also to block the emergence of autonomous Kurdish areas in Syria and Iraq, which would encourage Turkish Kurds to demand autonomy, or even independence, from Ankara.

The Alawite elite, in turn, wishes to maintain a role in Syria's leadership, both political and military. That may be an ambition too far, given the carnage of the past 19 months, but the Alawites are unwilling to lose everything. They might make concessions to the opposition, but only as long as they can retain much of their status and safeguard their community in a new Syria. They doubtless prefer this to falling back on the Alawite heartland. The community hasn't descended from their mountain to return there now.

But even assuming their goals are more modest, the Alawites have enough firepower today, if they can remain united, to demand considerable guarantees and self-rule in prospective talks. How they would manoeuvre is another question. On the one side they have allies such as Iran and Russia, who intend to preserve their stakes in the Syrian power edifice; on the other there are the rebels, who will reject any compromise that keeps the current system intact.

That is where the dynamics of negotiations come in. If the Americans are interested, they could pressure the opposition into accepting a middle ground. However, middle ground satisfactory to the rebels will surely be hard to reach. That's because once the Alawite elite looks beyond Mr Al Assad, if it ever does, the community will appear truly vulnerable. Fear of this perception of vulnerability is perhaps a reason why Alawites have tolerated the Syrian president for so long.

As the killing in Syria goes on, all sides, particularly those hoping to prevail politically after the uprising, are beginning to recalculate. In time the Assad family will be on the table rather than at the table. For now, though, there is too much uncertainty for anyone to act decisively. However, a grand bargain may not be as remote as we imagine, as everyone looks for a way out of a dreadful situation.

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