The Jakarta Post, Commentary by Roby Arya Brata (Jakarta, Indonesia, Dec. 29 2012) — For the first time Syria’s most powerful ally, Russia, said earlier this month that President Bashar al-Assad was losing control of his country and the rebels might win the civil war, dramatically shifting the diplomatic landscape at a time of significant political momentum for the opposition (The Washington Post, Dec. 13).
“We must look at the facts: There is a trend for the government to progressively lose control over an increasing part of its territory,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said during hearings at a Kremlin advisory body, the Public Chamber. “[The possibility of] an opposition victory can’t be excluded.”
More importantly, the Assad regime was politically defeated when more than 100 countries in the “Friends of the Syrian People” conference in Morocco earlier this month recognized a new Syrian opposition coalition as representing the Syrian people. By international law, therefore, the Syrian National Coalition has a legal standing to act in international relations.
On the other side, without international recognition, the Assad regime as a government has become weaker and more ineffective in dealing with other sovereign powers.
However, the opposition will not easily win the war. As Bogdanov warned, it will take the opposition a long time to defeat the regime. This means more innocent civilians will become casualties in the civil war, which has already killed more than 40,000 people.
Compared to the Libyan and Tunisian conflicts, the Syrian conflict is more complex and difficult. Hence, Kofi Annan, who has reputable diplomatic and negotiation skills, gave up his efforts to solve the conflict.
The Syrian conflict is essentially a geopolitical war waged between Russia, China and Iran on one side and the US, Israel, the West and some Arab countries on the other side.
Historically, Syria under the Assad regime has had good relations with Russia and China. Having economic interests particularly in oil resources, Russia and China have also used Syria under Assad’s rule to counterbalance the power and political influence of the US in the Middle East. For these reasons, therefore Russia and China have vetoed three resolutions of the United Nations Security Council that would have imposed sanctions on the Assad regime.
Iran has political and military interests in keeping the Assad regime in power. Iran, together with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Hamas, has a strategic alliance with the Assad regime — which has a Shiite Islam Alawite background — in protecting her security and political interests against those of Israel and the US in the Middle East.
With a possible war against Israel and/or the US, Iran will therefore pursue all efforts to prevent the installation of a US/Israel-backed “puppet” Syrian ruler. On the other hand, the US, Israel and the West have strategic political and military interests in overthrowing Assad’s regime.
They see the regime as a threat to their security interests in the Middle East, particularly in countering the military tactics of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. Moreover, like Russia and China, the US and the West have economic interests in Syrian oil resources to satisfy their need for energy.
Therefore, it is logical that Russia, China and Iran will attempt to keep the Assad regime in power. On the contrary, it is in their political and security interests for the US, Israel and the West to remove the Assad regime. Should the Assad regime be removed, these opposing countries will endeavor to influence the new Syrian government.
Thus, with the weakness of the United Nations security system, i.e. the veto mechanism, the worst possible scenario may take place. A deadly open war may be waged between those opposing countries. Even though this possibility is still remote, in fact an “open war” is already occurring, i.e. by militarily supporting and using the conflicting parties in the civil war.
However, facing the fact that the Assad regime is getting militarily and politically weaker a more realistic scenario may come about. Russia, China and Iran may secretly compromise with the US side.
They may withdraw their support for the Assad regime and let the opposition militia arrest, kill or grant political asylum to President Assad. In return, they will ask for some form of political and economic gains from the new US and Israel-backed Syrian government.
All those scenarios will therefore conflict with the legitimate interests of the Syrian people. Their interest is to form a clean, just and democratic government which is not under the control and influence of opposing countries.
For this purpose, Indonesia can have a key role to play. The mediating role played by the United Nations mediator including Lakhdar Brahimi will be seen by the opposing parties as not neutral or having a hidden agenda.
The Assad regime and the opposition see Indonesia as a good friend that has more neutral and supportive intentions in promoting the interests of the Syrian people.
Therefore, with his international reputation and goodwill, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono or Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa could be appointed as a mediator. Instead of representing the United Nations, either one could act to represent the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
As a mediator, President Yudhoyono could propose some solutions for the conflict. To prevent more casualties, in the first instance he should suggest a cease-fire. Operating under the United Nations, peacekeeping forces should come from Indonesia and other neutral, Islamic countries, not from the opposing countries.
He then should recommend that President Assad step down and administer a fair and democratic general election. Such an election must be supervised by the United Nations, Indonesia or other neutral countries.
Indonesia could help Syria by sharing its experience in administering this election. As a compromise, the ruling Ba’ath party, which still has some supporters, could run in the election.
Being disbarred from the election, President Assad should be asked to seek political asylum. Alternatively, he could stand trial, but the new president could grant him clemency.
Now, it is all down to President Assad. The game is almost over. You will never win a war against your own people. What you can do now is to win their hearts. Learn from history or you will face the same fate as Qaddafi.
The writer is an international legal and policy analyst at the Indonesian Cabinet Secretariat. The opinions expressed are his own.