The Sharaa interview and the Iranian proposal: the need for a political solution

Amal Saad Ghorayeb

Originally published in Amal Saad-Ghorayeb’s counter-hegemony unit blog, 18 Dec 2012
The concurrence of two important Syria-related developments today—Farouk al-Sharaa’s interview with Al-Akhbar and Iran’s 6 point proposal to resolve the Syrian crisis—does not appear to be a mere coincidence. The considerable overlap between the solutions envisaged by both the Islamic Republic and Sharaa—neither of which would have been put on the table had the Assad leadership rejected either one outright—indicate a growing realization within the Resistance Axis and Syrian government circles, that there is no going back to the status quo ante. Yes, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi did say on Sunday that “Iran will never allow any Western plots to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to succeed” but this doesn’t contradict Iran’s attempts to find a political solution to the conflict, nor does it signal any back peddling on its part as AP boldly claims in this report which curiously cites an “Iranian-born political analyst based in Israel” to corroborate the reporter’s fanciful analysis. Rejecting the forcible ouster of Assad while calling for a peaceful resolution to the conflict by means of an internal national dialogue, are not mutually exclusive objectives but part and parcel of a realistic yet principled position on Syria. In fact, the only parties who have been repeatedly calling for an intra Syrian dialogue for well over a year now, are Iran, Hizbullah, Russia and China. Not a single Western or Arab capital aligned with the opposition has done the same.

While many in the Syrian government believe that the foreign-backed insurrection/proxy war can be won decisively on the battlefield, Syria’s allies like Iran and Hizbullah, as well as officials like Sharaa, do not see the military option as sufficient. This view is not only evinced by Iran’s recent proposal but by Hizbullah’s repeated calls for a dialogue between the government and the opposition whose popular representation has never been denied by the movement (Nasrallah never uses the term “majority” of course, but he does refer to a “portion” or “segment” of the population who support the opposition).

This view or understanding is also evident in Nasrallah’s recent appraisal of the conflict: “the Americans are in no hurry to end the [violence] in Syria” as their aim is to weaken and destroy Syria. In other words, by playing into the US’ divide and rule strategy, Syrians from both sides are digging their own graves both literally and metaphorically. Rather than unleash Israel on Syria as it did on Hizbullah in 2006, the US and Israel have now subcontracted the task of destroying Syria to the Syrian rebels using sectarian war rather than foreign invasion as their preferred instrument of destruction. Indeed, sectarianism has become the new Israel as a matter of US policy.

As such, the Syrian government and its allies are faced with two options: fighting an ultimately un-winnable war where the most the regime can hope to achieve is control over a small sliver of a dismembered Syria in a regional climate of all out sectarian warfare (the inevitable spillover effect of the Syrian war) or, a restructuring of the political system (forming a transitional government, followed by parliamentary elections, a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution and presidential elections as per the Iranian proposal) and a forced partnership with its enemies. In the most favourable scenario for the Resistance Axis, the Baath party and government loyalists would be heavily represented in the new parliament, the constitution would protect the rights of religious minorities and the government would preserve Syria’s foreign policy constants. But perhaps most importantly, the Syrian Arab Army would remain intact and its military ethos unchanged —note Sharaa’s emphasis on this point and Nasrallah’s repeated warnings to  preserve the “only remaining strong Arab army” . Ideally, Assad would be re-elected to office but this is no longer a certainty considering rapidly escalating sectarian sentiment. In other words, the most favourable compromise would be one characterized by major reforms in the political system without sacrificing the integrity of the state as happened in Iraq and Libya.

Undoubtedly, the resulting political configuration would be a very unhappy and shaky marriage between an Assadist Syria and a Salafi-cum-Brotherhood-cum western liberal Syria.The closest analogy that comes to mind, is Hizbullah’s tenuous coexistence with March 14 who, like its counterparts in Syria, have conspired with the US, Arab states and Israel to disarm and/or destroy the resistance movement, and who could easily have continued to wage a civil war against it to this very day had Hizbullah not easily defeated its militias in 2008. Just as Hizbullah was forced into this partnership for the sake of Sunni-Shi’ite relations, national unity and a modicum of sovereignty, the Syrian government will have no choice but to do the same.

Of course, all of the above is moot given that the opposition and its foreign backers have already rejected the Iranian proposal as well as others like it, such as Kofi Annan’s 6 point plan. This rejection will only serve to bolster the position of proponents of an exclusively military solution. While Iran, Hizbullah and many in the Syrian government will continue to view significant military advances as an exigent need for “cleansing” as much territory as possible, such battlefield successes are increasingly being viewed as ways of strengthening the government’s bargaining position in an internal dialogue, and Iran and Russia’s negotiating position in talks for a broader regional agreement with the US and its Arab allies. The Dublin and Geneva talks may well be a step in that direction, though  there is no guarantee that any breakthrough is in the offing.

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb was a visiting scholar in the Carnegie Middle East Center. A leading expert on Hizbollah, she has done extensive research on the organization, conducting numerous in-depth interviews with leading Hizbollah officials. She has also written extensively about Lebanon’s Shiites and Lebanese politics. She previously taught political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, and was a consultant at the Beirut Center for Research and Information–a leading Lebanese research center specializing in public opinion research. 

Leave a Reply