Political settlement prospects for Syria expanding against military solution

Dina Ezzat, Saturday 23 Feb 2013

This week’s meeting of Syrian opposition in Cairo signaled a larger than ever consensus on reaching a political settlement to the crisis in Syria

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad deployed from al-Sabaa Bahrat district move on their armoured vehicles towards the old souk of Aleppo February 21, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

Diplomatic sources attending a meeting in Cairo this week of Syria's main opposition currents told Ahram Online that opposition factions that for the past few months have been determined to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad by force are “losing ground” amid growing support for a political resolution, “both from within the Syrian opposition and from international and regional partners.”

A key factor, according to informed sources working on the Syrian file in several world capitals, is the position of the US. “Washington is keen to see closure by settlement of the situation in the Middle East. This necessarily entails a resolution of the Syrian crisis and given that the military solution means an extended process, the US has opted now for a political approach, firmly,” said one source.

The source added that another factor that helped Washington decide to favour a political over a military solution for Syria is its fear that the military solution would empower “a radical Sunni regime in Syria that would antagonise the minorities of Syria that would opt for help from neighbours like Iran. This is the beginning of a long civil war and it is a civil war with an inevitable influence over Lebanon and indeed Iraq.”

This week’s meeting of the Syrian Opposition National Council in Cairo is the second in two weeks since Syrian opposition figure Moaz Al-Khatib launched a political initiative that paves the way for a political resolution of the crisis in Syria that started two years ago with protests against the regime of Al-Assad.

Western and regional diplomats serving in Damascus say that the Assad regime, which subscribes to the small but influential Alawite sect, has been successful in tainting the Syrian revolution with a sectarian hue, deliberately targeting Sunni cities and prompting the influx of foreign Sunni fighters, blunting the original force of the revolution that was firmly a movement of the Syrian people against the regime.

The rise of a radical Sunni regime in Syria is not only feared by the US, increasingly sceptical about its support for political islam in Arab Spring counrties, but also Sunni hardliner Saudi Arabia that is feeling uncomfortable — according to one Saudi diplomat — with the “march of the Muslim Brotherhood to control all of the Arab Mashreq and Arab Gulf.”

Indeed, Saudi Arabia is calling on France to reconsider its role in providing military assistance to Syrian rebels while calling on Turkey to stop the flow of Islamist militants from its borders into Syria. Saudi Arabia has also been opening up to wider shades of the Syrian opposition than before, contemplating diverse views on the future of post-Assad Syria.

This shift in the Saudi position is well received by Iran, the strongest regional supporter of the Assad regime and a firm opponent of the ascent of a radical Sunni regime in Damascus.

It is a trend that Egyptian diplomats say is gaining more ground in Cairo with the growing awareness that the extended state of instability in Syria is harmful to Egyptian strategic interests.

According to one Egyptian diplomat, Cairo fully supports the initiative of El-Khatib and is urging all Syrian opposition groups to positively consider it.

Diplomats from Cairo, Ankara and Tehran say that the three key capitals that are, along with Saudi Arabia, members of a four-member regional state mechanism — largely ineffective since it was established last summer upon an Egyptian initiative — are currently working to provide a political umbrella for the initiative of El-Khatib, in cooperation with Washington, Paris and the previously reluctant Riyadh that had opted for a military end to the Assad regime.

It is the new get together of these three capitals and the shifting of the positions of the US and Saudi Arabia, informed sources say, that prompted the change of tone coming from the Arab League on the Assad regime. This week, Arab League Secretary Nabil El-Arabi, who had earlier announced Assad as "hors-jeu" (offside), said his organisaiton is willing to mediate between the Assad regime and the opposition.

According to participants in the Cairo Syrian opposition meeting, opening Thursday and set to close Saturday, the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation as well as the UN should be party as observers to any “political deal” between regime and opposition in Syria.

This said, diplomats urge caution. “It is far too early to say that a deal is getting close to hand because to judge by this week’s meeting we still hear wide scepticism among some Syrian opposition groups on negotiating a deal with the Assad regime even if the outcome of this deal would mean the inevitable removal of Assad,” said one Egyptian diplomat. He added that Al-Khatib has come under harsh criticism from skeptics with some suggesting that he is trying to offer Assad a safe exit.

“We still have a lot of work to do, but one thing is sure: we are moving steadily in the direction of a political resolution,” the same diplomat stated.

As to the anticipated timeframe for a resolution to the crisis, the diplomat answered somewhat unconfidently, “This year.”

UN-Arab League Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Librahimi said earlier this year that “2013 should be the year for the settlement of the Syrian crisis,” though he declined say why it would.

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