Cynical Options


DAMASCUS/NEW YORK/BERLIN (Own report) - In New York, Germany's foreign minister will take part in talks this week to seek possible alignments of interests between the major powers in reference to the war in Syria. Parallel developments have made it appear advisable for western powers to accept ending - or at least freezing - the war. Russia has grown stronger and can no longer be ignored in Middle East affairs. Simultaneously, the US administration would like to proceed with its announced global political "pivot to Asia" and would like to avoid over-stretching its forces in the Middle East quagmire - as the Bush administration had done. Berlin, and the rest of the EU are currently doing everything to halt the flow of refugees. It can no longer be afforded to bleed Syria dry with this war, according to one author. A similar alignment of interests would already have been possible back in February 2012, reported the diplomat and former President of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari. At the time, according to his account, Russia had proposed to the West that the Syrian government and opposition reach an agreement, following a period of grace, President Bashar al Assad would be forced to step down. According to Ahtisaari, the West, turned down the proposition, based on the assumption of Assad's assured overthrow and a complete takeover of Syria. Berlin also followed this line of action. The theme discussed in the current talks resemble Moscow's proposition at that time - three and a half years and hundreds of thousands of deaths later.

Talks in New York

Currently, negotiations are being held in New York - with intensive German participation - on the steps needed to end the war in Syria. is This year's United Nations General Assembly, with the participation of numerous heads of states and governments, as well as their foreign ministers, forms the backdrop for the talks. Western powers, particularly the United States, Germany, Great Britain and France, alongside Russia, Turkey, as well as the regional Middle East powers Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking part in these talks. Several parallel developments have made possible the current negotiations on the future of a war-ravaged Syria, aimed at an alignment of interests of all the powers involved.

A Strengthened Russia

Since some time, Russia has been strengthening its position in the Middle East. Throughout the year, Moscow has been engaged in numerous negotiations concerning the war in Syria with the government in Damascus, various factions of Syria's opposition, and those regional powers involved. President Vladimir Putin intends to propose the formation of a new alliance against the "Islamic State" (IS) in his speech to the UN General Assembly. ( reported.[1]) At the same time, Russian armed forces have expanded their support for Syrian government forces and their own presence within Syria. Russian interests cannot be brushed aside, as had been the case only a few years ago.

Pivot to Asia

The nuclear agreement with Iran is another factor, which has opened new Middle East political options for the West. The agreement remains controversial. Influential forces in politics and the media in the USA and EU, including in Germany, are expressing their opposition to the deal. In the meantime, both Berlin and Washington are using the opportunity to hold talks with Teheran, without which a solution for the Syrian War is practically unthinkable. Already in July, German Minister of the Economy, Sigmar Gabriel traveled to Teheran.[2] Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier has announced his visit to the Iranian capital for October. Last Saturday, US Secretary of State, John Kerry met for talks with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif in New York. After the talks, Kerry said he sees an opportunity for progress this week towards ending Syria's war. Today, Monday, US President Barack Obama is expected to hold talks with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. According to observers, on the heels of its nuclear agreement with Iran, the US administration would not be indisposed to reaching an alignment on the Syrian question. Because of its enduring, but - in terms of hegemonic progress - fruitless interventions in the Middle East, the US cannot really proceed with its "pivot to Asia" announced a few years ago. ( reported.[3])

Don't "Bleed It Dry"

The strengthening of IS and the mass exodus from Syria has increased pressure on the EU to put an end to - if possible - or at least, freeze the war in Syria. Referring to western policy, Volker Perthes, Director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), wrote in a recent commentary "the advances made by the Islamic State (IS), as well as the exodus from Syria show what the cynical option, of simply letting the conflict bleed Syria dry, really means."[4] With her announcement, to include, if necessary, Syrian President Bashar al Assad in negotiations, Chancellor Merkel virtually prepared future talks with Damascus. Foreign Minister Steinmeier held talks with his US counterpart Kerry on September 20 in Berlin. Following the Berlin meeting, Kerry announced that Washington does not exclude an interim solution that will temporarily keep Assad in power. The German government agrees.

No Compromise

More than likely, a similar settlement may have been possible already early in 2012, as the diplomat and former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari recently explained. Ahtisaari recounts that in late February 2012, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, laid out a plan to align Russian and the West's interests on the question of Syria. The proposal consisted of three points: The opposition should not be furnished arms, Assad should enter into dialog with the opposition, Moscow would support this and furthermore "find an elegant way for Assad to step aside."[5] Ahtisaari passed on the message to the American, British and French missions at the UN - without success. "Nothing happened," recalls the diplomat, because the western powers "were convinced that Assad would be thrown out of office in a few weeks." Germany was among the countries arranging for Assad's overthrow and therefore was not willing to negotiate an end to the war. The West, together with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, began to arm the insurgents in Syria, thereby tolerating the eventuality of the establishment of IS. ( reported.[6]) Within the framework of the German/US cooperative project "The Day After,"[7] Berlin prepared plans for restructuring Syria once Assad is overthrown.

Diplomacy à la Verdun

If Ahtisaari's report is accurate, the West wilfully passed up a chance to end the war by aligning the interests of those involved. In February 2013, the UN estimated the death toll from the Syrian conflict to be about 7,500. Today the death toll is estimated to be about 250,000, with more than eleven million people having fled their homes. "We have caused that ourselves," Ahtisaari is quoted saying.[8] The settlement discussed these days in New York is most likely not very different from Churkin's proposal at that time. Negotiations with the Syrian opposition are underway; Assad's going into exile is being mentioned. The German Foreign Ministry is hoping that the "diplomatic trench warfare à la Verdun of the past few years" is over.[9]

Ever Greater Evils

It is not sure, however, that a settlement can be reached or would endure. Influential forces in the USA and Germany are mobilizing against an agreement.[10] "The idea that Assad could be supported as a lesser evil, to later force him into Russian exile is being circulated in the West," writes, for example, the influential Süddeutschen Zeitung. This, however, is wrong, "the Syrian dictator" is "not at all the lesser evil" in comparison to IS.[11] To overthrow Assad should remain on the agenda. Should that happen, Syria could come under the total control of IS and a Salafist jihadist alliance led by Jabhat al Nusra, the al Qaeda subsidiary. This would be a late victory for Osama bin Laden, whose organization had once been considered the West's biggest enemy in the Middle East, and had served as the justification for the ensuing wars to restructure that region. It had not been foreseen as Syria's new ruler.

[1] See Machtkampf in Nahost.
[2] See A New Era in Middle East.
[3] See Das pazifische Jahrhundert.
[4] Volker Perthes: Eine Lösung für Syrien. Handelsblatt 21.09.2015.
[5] Julian Borger, Bastien Inzaurralde: West "ignored Russian offer in 2012 to have Syria's Assad step aside". 15.09.2015.
[6] See The Islamization of the Rebellion, Vom Nutzen des Jihad (I) and A Salafist Principality.
[7] See The Day After, The Day After (II), The Day After (III) and The Day After (IV).
[8] Julian Borger, Bastien Inzaurralde: West "ignored Russian offer in 2012 to have Syria's Assad step aside". 15.09.2015.
[9] Martin Schäfer, Sprecher des Auswärtigen Amts, auf der Regierungspressekonferenz vom 25. September.
[10] See Top German Diplomat Calls for Bundeswehr Engagement in Syria.
[11] Kurt Kister: Warum Assad kein Teil der Lösung ist. 25.09.2015.