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Can Syria be saved?

20/03/2013, Rome

Two years since the outbreak of the uprising, the conflict in Syria remains one of the most challenging issues facing the international community which to date remains unable, or unwilling, to agree on a solution for the crisis. This was the topic of a seminar held at IAI on 20 March by Daniel Serwer, Senior Research Professor at Johns Hopkins University and scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Starting with the fresh election of the new opposition Prime Minister Ghassan Hitto, a candidate backed by the United States, the seminar focused on exploring possible future scenarios for the country and the region in the event of a collapse of the Syrian regime. The discussion shed light on different US views of the crisis and possible ways to resolve the conflict. Having highlighted the weakness and divisions present within the opposition’s revolutionary front, an aspect Serwer linked to the lack of international support, the presentation focused on the fundamental role played by diplomacy in the context of the Syrian crisis. Serwer firstly criticised Russia’s anti-Western stance and stubborn support for the Syrian regime, which neither benefits Russian internal stability nor its international reputation. He then continued with an analysis of the reasons behind the US’s hesitation to provide decisive military support to the Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Despite the fact that an armed intervention would have been less costly than the current policy focused on humanitarian aid, the Obama administration has to date opted against a military campaign. Professor Sewer frankly admitted that the lack of Security Council approval does not represent a real obstacle to international intervention, as demonstrated by the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Rather, the United States fears that by arming the opposition, and thus ending the arms embargo imposed on Syria, weapons will fall into the hands of extremist elements within the opposition and thus endanger the future stability of the country. Moreover, the US administration is fearful of losing Russian support for other important priorities in the region: namely in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States is also weary of losing Russian support in the UN Security Council, where Moscow’s vote is crucial for maintaining the regime of international sanctions on Iran. For these reasons the US is not likely to support Britain and France in their avowed willingness to supply weapons to the opposition.

The core of Serwer’s speech, however, touched upon those elements needed to ensure a new domestic and regional balance of power in the event of a regime collapse in Syria. The US and Western powers must recognize the failures of their post-intervention strategies in Iraq and Libya and learn from these mistakes. While it is no doubt true that important differences exist between the Syrian and Iraqi cases, particularly in relation to the greater organisation and compactness of the opposition in Syria compared to that in Iraq, sectarian and religious differences are already undermining this shaky unity of the opposition in Syria. Moreover there are many different militias, both Islamist and non, which are likely to stake a claim in post-Assad Syria. According to Serwer the international community cannot stand idly by and must press for a UN sanctioned intervention in Syria aiming to protect the rights and security of the population in the country. In forecasting the regional and international ramifications of this crisis, Serwer underlined the importance of maintaining open channels of dialogue with Russia, which will remain a fundamental actor in determining the future of Syria. In the same perspective, he concluded the debate by pointing to the question of minority rights in Syria, and particularly that of the Kurdish minority, which is likely to request international protection and recognition in the event of a collapse of the Assad regime.