Three questions for Marwan Bishara: Determining Syria’s future in Tunisia

Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst looks at diplomatic efforts to secure peace in Syria.

Friends of Syria - 2
Diplomats attempting to find a solution were hampered by rifts in the international community [REUTERS]

As officials from more than 70 countries gather to explore options for peace in Syria, Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst offers his scrutiny of the meeting.

What do you make of the ‘Friends of Syria’ meeting in Tunisia?

Despite the attendance of so many countries and international organisations, the “Friends of Syria” meeting rang hollow, in light of the disagreement among the “friends” and the absence of the doubters – notably Russia and China.

Since Moscow and Beijing vetoed the UN Security Council draft resolution regarding leadership transition in Syria, several Western and Arab countries have been scrambling to find ways to end the violence and bring about change in Syria, to no avail.

Divisions among Syria’s neighbours – Turkey, for example, was an enthusiastic summit attendee, while Iran vehemently opposed the meeting – and between Arab League members – Saudi Arabia left the meeting abruptly over the “lack of resolve”, while Lebanon didn’t even attend – as well as disagreement among the world superpowers over the means to end the violence and over the political endgame in Syria, have all made it ever more difficult to reach an international roadmap for change in Syria.

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That’s why the more effective and actionable results of the Tunisia gathering are more likely to come out of the hallway discussions and backroom deals than the official meeting and its final statement.

So, while the official statement condemns the regime’s excessive use of force and demands the withdrawal of heavy military equipment from urban areas in order to reach a peaceful transition of power, a hardcore “coalition of the willing” seems adamant on escalating the pressure and militarising the revolution through somewhat clandestine means.

To that end, the meeting made symbolic – and, indeed, important – political gestures towards the Syrian opposition by recognising the Syrian National Council as “a legitimate representative” of the Syrian people (notably not the sole representative, which has disappointed the SNC). However, it will be the attempts by certain countries to arm the opposition that will prove a game changer.

This is most obvious in the statement made to press by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the day before the meeting, which alluded to the arming of the opposition, most probably through a third party:

“There will be increasingly capable opposition forces. They will – from somewhere, somehow – find the means to defend themselves as well as to begin offensive measures. And the pressure will build on countries like Russia and China because world opinion is not going to stand idly by.”

The Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal echoed Clinton, stating that arming the Syrian opposition is “an excellent idea”. But other international and Arab leaders oppose the further militarisation of the opposition. For example, the host of the meeting, Tunisia’s President Moncif Al Marzouki, opposes any military intervention and instead supports a peaceful political transition.

It follows that the inaction resulting from these divisions will leave a dangerous void that will only be filled with more of the same violence, and its increasing escalation.

What do you make of the absence of Russia and China?

Syria is the double victim of violent dictatorship and the machinations of cynical superpowers. It has evolved into a major case of West-East contention, following NATO’s capacious intervention in Libya.

Russia and China might be criticised as being cold, calculating and indifferent to Syrian suffering, but that does not mean that the US and EU have been entirely virtuous either.

As any student of international affairs would tell you, interests, not human rights, are the centre of superpower calculation – Eastern or Western. And in light of NATO’s specious interpretation of UN Security Council resolution 1973 in Libya, Beijing and Moscow are doubtful of Western intentions and oppose military intervention and the further arming of the Syrian opposition.

Strategically speaking, Syria is only the symptom of a greater crisis in relations among the world superpowers. Moscow and Beijing share a number of strategic preoccupations that Syria epitomises.

Among other factors, they are suspicious of the West’s intervention in sovereign states under the guise of the “Right to Protect”, and in the process transforming the post-World War II system, according to their own vision and interests.

Intervention in Syria would enhance the geopolitical influence of Western powers notably in the greater Middle East region – at the expense of the others, which is not acceptable either to rising China or the populist Russian leadership.

The West’s fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its diplomatic failure and double-standard in Israel/Palestine have provided its detractors with more political ammunition to legitimately reject military intervention in Syria.

Second, Beijing and Moscow are suspicious of the rise of political Islamist alternatives to autocratic regimes in the greater Middle East following the Arab revolutions, and are wary of their potential influence on Muslims in Asia – notably among minorities in Russia and China.

What does the future hold for Syria?

Needless to say, Syria is no Libya; it is far more complex. Any attempt at military intervention could lead to the country’s breakup, rife with sectarian and political violence, which may spill over to the surrounding countries and the rest of the region.

On the other hand, diplomatic attempts to mend fences between the bitter, horrified majority among the populace and the sadistic minority at the helm are too timid, too late.

If Assad had listened to the voice of reason and the agony of his people from the outset, perhaps there would have been a chance for reform and reconciliation.

The Syrian regime has now lost all legitimacy and there is no more room for reconciliation under Assad’s leadership. It’s just too late for that.

Already more than a quarter of the population is either on the streets or directly implicated by the mass demonstrations, and is in direct confrontation with the forces of the regime. With more than 7,000 killed – and many more injured and displaced – the window of opportunity for reconciliation has long since closed.

Moreover, the expected collapse of Syria’s currency and the regime’s inability to pay salaries to its soldiers and bureaucrats will, for all practical purpose, destroy whatever technical legitimacy it commands in the country – and perhaps lead to its implosion from within.

In the meantime, in the absence of Arab consensus and with a lack of serious international diplomatic pressure, arming the opposition renders the escalation towards civil war all but imminent – short of an implosion within the regime’s inner circles.

It’s a zero sum game that will probably, at the end of the day, leave everyone on the losing side.

Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst and the author of The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions, now available in bookstores.

Follow him on Twitter: @MarwanBishara