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.

Allison Joyce/Reuters
UN-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan speaks with the media after Security Council consultations on the crisis in Syria at UN headquarters in New York June 7. Op-ed contributor Benedetta Berti says: 'Unless the international community is prepared to provide concrete incentives for [Russia and Iran to give up on their ally Assad], the negotiations on the future of Syria are likely to stall.'

Warnings that the crisis in Syria will spiral into a serious regional problem have been sounded since the regime of Bashar al-Assad began to forcibly put down protesters over a year ago. Those warnings have turned out to be true – meaning that a solution to Syria should also involve the region.

International envoy Kofi Annan, then, is right to suggest the idea of an international “contact group” that can influence both sides in Syria – including regional players such as Iran. As the former UN secretary general himself admits, his six-point plan is not working and the country is in “imminent” danger of “full-scale civil war.”

But as Syria is divided, so is the region, and the obstacles confronting a contact group of world and regional powers are high indeed.

Events in Syria have always had regional implications and repercussions. For example, this conflict has produced a large number of refugees seeking shelter in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

However, in the past few months, the cross-border impact of the Syrian crisis has intensified. In northern Lebanon, for instance, recent clashes between pro-Assad Lebanese Alawites and pro-opposition Sunni groups highlight Lebanon’s own deterioration of relations between sects. While these clashes have not led to broader armed confrontations at the national level, still, the longer the violence continues in Syria, the more tense sectarian relations will become in Lebanon.

While the Syrian conflict is having increasingly stronger repercussions in the Middle East, it is also true that regional players are having a growing impact on the crisis in Syria.

Shiite Iran is strongly backing the Assad regime, made up of an Alawite minority that is a  considered a Shiite branch. Regional Sunni powers, such as Saudi Arabia, are supporting the opposition. Involvement from both sides fuels the Syrian fire as the country becomes a proxy battlefield for these two regional powers that compete for influence in the Middle East.

Sadly, the Middle East has seen this proxy fight before, during the long Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 1990.

What’s more, the Syria crisis mirrors a broader international divide. Members of the UN Security Council have opposing interests in Syria – with Russia, for instance, wanting to protect its strategic interests, investments, and port access there by keeping Mr. Assad in power.

Accordingly, a contact group along the lines that Mr. Annan proposes would engage all the main parties, both Assad’s backers – mostly China, Russia, and Iran – as well as supporters of the opposition – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. They would try to devise a mutually satisfying approach to end the violence.

Involving these players has an undeniable advantage: It is in tune with reality, recognizing that the conflict in Syria has reached a point where regional and international interests have mixed with those of the warring parties.

It also implicitly adjusts to the worsening internal situation within Syria. With the level of mutual trust between the Assad regime and the political opposition at an all time low, it will require solid third-party guarantees to convince both sides of the conflict to commit to end the hostilities.

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.

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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