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Opinion

As Syria morphs into a regional crisis, Annan 'contact group' a good place to start

The conflict in Syria is now a serious regional problem, requiring – ideally – a regional solution. That's why the Kofi Annan suggestion to create a Syria 'contact group' of world and regional powers is a good starting point. But such a group would also face tremendous obstacles.

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However, this new approach would face staggering obstacles. An obvious one is that the regional and international actors involved have mutually exclusive interests in Syria’s future. Such is the case with Iran and Saudi Arabia.

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Also, the minimal condition for the Syrian opposition to join a political negotiation process – the removal of Assad from power – is strongly opposed by China, Russia, and Iran. The last two countries in particular have strong historical, personal, economic, and strategic ties to Assad and his regime, and persuading them to give up on their regional ally will require some serious convincing.

Unless the international community is prepared to provide concrete incentives for them to do so, the negotiations on the future of Syria are likely to stall. In turn, this will give Assad more time to crack down on opponents.

Finally, even if a Syria contact group could agree on a mechanism to remove Assad from power (such as protection in exile) and to begin a transition process, this would not guarantee a permanent end to the hostilities.

As the ongoing internal divisions in Libya shows, getting rid of a dictator is very different from ensuring a smooth political transition afterward. Because of the frail state of internal sectarian relations and the growing wedge between the warring parties, a post-Assad political transition could easily spiral into more internal violence – short of strong external peace enforcement.

Given the general international reluctance to get involved in yet another shaky post-conflict stabilization scenario, one cannot help but wonder how a peace agreement between the parties would be kept.

If the contact group is to work, it will have to get Russia and Iran on board, for example by meeting the political prices demanded by both countries – obvious ones being a significant change to the US missile defense program in Europe and an easing of international sanctions on Iran.

These are (rightly) considered too costly. However, if both countries can be convinced that Assad is unequivocally doomed and that by supporting a political transition, Moscow and Tehran can retain some influence over who rules the country next, then there may be chance to lure them away from supporting Assad.

If not, the choice for the next step may be even more difficult: watching Syria as it descends into a potentially long and devastating civil war, or a “coalition of the willing” for military intervention, for which none of the usual nations have any appetite.

Benedetta Berti is a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist working group, and coauthor of the book, “Hamas and Hezbollah: A Comparative Study” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Follow her on Twitter at @benedettabertiw.

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