Syria Crisis: Less Lebanon, More Turkey

Nicolas Nassif

Originally posted on Al-Akhbar English, 8 June 2012

As diplomatic deadlock ensures that the conflict in Syria is set to drag on, officials say the US wants to see opposition enclaves established on the borders with Turkey rather than Lebanon.

Successive Russian and US statements in recent days indicate that the international diplomatic impasse over the Syrian crisis is set to persist, along with the escalating violence on the ground.

Neither of the big powers backing the rival sides in the regime-opposition conflict has budged in its view of the troubles in Syria or the kind of solution it wants – whether it should exclude President Bashar al-Assad, or be under his auspices. Neither is capable of giving traction to UN/Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s plan to end the cycle of violence and start a political dialogue. But neither, in the absence of an alternative, can they ditch it.

The same applies to the domestic players: the regime and the opposition claim to be committed to Annan’s plan, but both in practice resort to violence as the sole means of resolving a struggle over which they have lost control.

The international deadlock effectively sustains the balance of power inside the country, promising a protracted period of attrition in Syria, and becoming a complementary feature of the waves of violence sweeping through it.Official Lebanese sources privy to diplomatic communications say US officials share the view that the situation in Syria is set to deteriorate further. The Americans hold out little hope of a resolution given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strong defense of Assad, and his rejection of any attempt to overthrow him by force or compel him to step down.

The two powers are at odds over how to build on an idea that they agree on. This compromise was reflected in US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s declaration that Assad’s departure was not a precondition for a settlement, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov’s remark that Assad need not remain in power by the end of a political process. The two sides thus concurred that achieving a settlement is more important than Assad’s status.

But the key difference is that Moscow sees this settlement as something that the Syrian supporters and opponents of the regime should work out themselves. Washington wants it to be a means of transferring power to the opposition as represented by the Syrian National Council. Neither approach offers a way out, and the US and Russia remain poles apart over the mechanism for achieving a solution and in their attitudes to Assad.

The sources add that while the Americans do not think they can persuade Putin to abandon his support for his Syrian ally, they are aware that even if the Russians did shift position, that would not end the fighting on the ground, nor in itself be sufficient to ensure Assad’s overthrow or resignation.

According to the sources, the Americans also take into account the Israeli view that Assad is capable of surviving indefinitely. The Israeli assessment is apparently based on the notion that the disproportionate power wielded by the Alawi minority in Syria makes it capable of impeding or preventing regime change. The Israelis also reportedly rate the Syrian army highly as a fighting force, from their own experience in former years, despite its inferior weaponry.

Turkey’s position meanwhile frustrates some US officials, who think it should assume the lead role in the campaign against Assad rather than demand that the US do so – notably by establishing a “humanitarian corridor” into Syria or a buffer zone for the Syrian opposition to operate from. There is a consensus within the administration that the US should back any efforts that are made to set up such enclaves, and that the most viable place for them is on Syria’s borders with Turkey.

The Americans reason that only Turkey could safeguard these zones, by providing the air cover needed to prevent the Syrian army from attacking them. This could be done either directly by the Turkish air force, or out of the US airbase at Iskenderun. But enclaves set up on the Syrian-Lebanese border could not be afforded similar protection.Turkey remains wary, however, fearing that the turmoil in Syria could extend to the “Mountain Turks” – the Kurds. It worries that the collapse of the state and regime would lead to the emergence of a “Syrian Kurdistan” resembling quasi-independent neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan. While Ankara has reluctantly learned to live with the latter, the prospect of a Syrian replica gives it nightmares.

Regarding Lebanon, the sources say US officials were alarmed by the latest clashes in Tripoli – and the implications of any escalation, given that 15 people were killed and dozens injured in a matter of a few hours. They have been reassured that clashes will not spill over into the rest of the country, including Akkar where tensions have been high in recent weeks. But they are aware that northern Lebanon is awash with weapons, and fear the impact of a further deterioration in Syria on both Lebanon and Jordan.

According to the sources, this leads Washington to the view that Prime Minister Najib Mikatii’s government should remain in office, despite pressure from the March 14 coalition on him to step down in favor of a technocratic government. In light of developments in Syria, US official think the last thing Lebanon needs is the further instability that could result if Mikati resigns and it proves impossible to form a successor government.

In a tacit hint to March 14, American officials have been saying they are sure that the Lebanese understand the pressing circumstances and the need to safeguard their country’s stability.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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