It would be no exaggeration to say that the Syrian crisis has become the most important international issue of the day. Dramatic changes are sweeping a huge region where the interests of many countries, including Russia, the United States, China and EU nations intersect. Temperatures are rising in the Middle East, and may soon reach the boiling point. It was interesting, therefore, amid the blizzard of global media reporting based sometimes on less than direct sourcing, to hear about events in Syria directly from officials in Damascus with whom the author of this article recently met.
Most world media portray the Syrian regime as increasingly isolated in the international community, with little to hope for but continued support from Russia (which in turn, that narrative goes, is driven exclusively by commercial interests). However, Syrian officials say that the situation is not nearly so dire. They point out that Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhai Jun’s recent visit to Syria made clear that Beijing, like Moscow, does not intend to abandon President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Iran, itself subjected to tough international pressure, views Syria as an important friend in the Arab world and, therefore, is also actively supporting the regime. It has already made a symbolic gesture by twice sending its ships to the Mediterranean Sea.
It is telling that Egypt, which is not particularly sympathetic to Damascus officially (and even recalled its ambassador from Damascus), allowed Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal on these occasions. Therefore, it is premature to say that Egypt, the most populous Arab country, has unequivocally renounced Syria. Here it is important to draw a distinction between the government’s official statements from its deeds.
Moreover, in confidential conversations, Syrian officials make it clear that Syria is developing a special relationship with Iraq, which sympathizes with Syria’s efforts to stabilize the domestic situation. It is quite probable that with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Iran, Iraq and Syria will at some point naturally form a loose, tripartite alliance in the Middle East. Given that the majority of the Iraqis are Shiite and Iran’s growing influence in Iraq in the last few years, such a scenario is by no means improbable. Oman is also giving Syria some support.
Syrian officials, including Vice President Najah al-Attar and Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, with whom a group of Russian experts (and the author of this article) met recently, mention Turkey, Qatar and Israel among the main instigators of international pressure on Syria, along with the United States standing behind them. The American factor in the Syrian crisis (and, to a lesser extent, the Israeli factor) is one of the main topics of discussion in Damascus at the moment. Syrians emphasize that the main target of the United States and Israel is not Syria but rather Iran, and that they are interested in destabilizing Syria for the sole purpose of depriving Tehran of a “counter play” in the Middle East in the event of a military operation against Iran. In general, the Syrian political elite is convinced that there is an international conspiracy against Damascus.
Israel’s role in the Syrian events is a sensitive issue for Syrians, considering Israel’s continued occupation of the Golan Heights. Indeed, even high-ranking Syrian officials claim they possess evidence showing that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has direct links to the Israeli government.
Speaking about the role of the Syrian opposition, Syrian officials note its heterogeneous character. Far from all of Assad’s opponents are taking up arms to achieve their goals. On the contrary, a significant portion of Assad’s opponents are also fundamentally opposed to foreign interference in the form of sanctions or military intervention. The reforms planned by the Syrian government are aimed at winning over these peaceful members of the opposition. These reforms include a referendum on a new constitution that would end the Ba’ath Party’s monopoly on power and set presidential term limits.
Some of Assad’s vocal opponents (notably those who speak from outside Syria), backed energetically by a handful of Western states led by the United States, insist that the time for finding a peaceful solution in Syria has run out. And that weapons and use of force are the only viable option left. However, the Syrian government supported by other states that also know the country well and even by a portion of Assad’s political opponents in the country, say the window of dialogue is not yet closed. Like the foreign supporters of Syria’s opposition, the authorities in Damascus want to halt bloodshed in the country. The only question is how. The Syrian government supposes that if the new constitution is approved and parliamentary elections are successfully held in May, the prerequisites for stabilization will be in place.
The Syrian government has high hopes for constitutional reform. Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud said it “will set an example for the entire region.” Judging by the contents of some of its provisions, published by the media, this is certainly the case, at least as long as authoritarian and theocratic states like Saudi Arabia exist. Riyadh could never contemplate such reforms.
However, it is important to remember that there are armed radicals among the Syrian opposition – even the United States officially acknowledges this – and they appear to be fighting to the end, targeting Assad regime loyalists in their campaign of terror. Al-Attar also noted the problem of illegal arms supplies from Turkey and Lebanon and that Turkey’s role in the current crisis came as a surprise for the Syrian leaders. “We didn’t expect Turkey to play such a role in the unfolding events,” she said.
Interestingly, the actions of opposition commanders also came as a surprise for Damascus. Mekdad said that “initially even high-ranking Syrian officials did not fully understand the nature of events.” Syrian politicians did not expect demonstrations to last this long and did not take all the necessary measures to neutralize their negative effects in the initial phase.
It is clear that the situation in Syria is complex. Future developments will depend on the government’s ability to establish a civil dialogue in the country, carry out political reforms and deprive the armed wing of the opposition of any support from the population. Damascus deserves help in these efforts. Also peace in Syria depends on the world understanding that the reality on the ground in this country today is not necessarily as simple as much of the media reporting.
*Alexey Pilko, Associate Professor at Moscow State University, Faculty of World Politics
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.