The Syrian quagmire-one way out

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At this stage it is difficult to hazard a plausible scenario for the end game in Syria. A disquieting and I hope utterly unacceptable precedent is from next door Lebanon, where a similar civil war dragged on for 15 long years (1975-1990).I was a witness to this war because I was Pakistan’s Ambassador to Syria at that time, with responsibility for Lebanon. It would be recalled that the Arabs meeting at Taif, Saudi Arabia in the late 1980’s finally agreed to allow Syrian forces to march into Beirut to separate the Christian Maronites and the Shia Hezbollah-Sunni Muslim contestants from further bloodletting.

Could an Arab League resolution similarly authorizing a neighboring country to march in its forces to separate the Assad government from the congeries of rebels fighting him, be possible today? Conceivably, but in the current scenario not probably. And that country is Turkey. But there is an obvious problem: it is not an Arab country, and as the successor to the Turkish Ottoman empire which dominated and incorporated Arab lands into its hegemony, would probably not be unanimously agreed to by the Arabs for this task. Perhaps Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two major supporters of some Arab rebel groups fighting Assad, may not be comfortable with Turkey being assigned this role which if it was so assigned, it may accept. Unfortunately, politicians everywhere rarely see beyond their immediate interests. Knowingly or unknowingly, they seem to be adherents of Lord Keynes’ well known aphorism: in the long run we are all dead.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan in a recent meeting at the White House with Obama advocated an interventionist role for the US and the West to oust Assad. If the Arab League cannot agree on Turkey acting as the referee to end Syria’s agony, then the US and NATO “leading from behind” could empower Turkey-a fellow NATO power- to carry out the task. As a staunchly secular country, Turkey can be counted upon to keep pro- al Qaeda elements among the rebels- a major concern for western countries- in check.

Regarding the Kerry-Lavrov initiative to convene an international conference to usher in “a transitional government” in Syria through negotiations between Assad and the rebels, this is a non-starter, in my view, even if such a conference is convened which is problematical, not least because of disunity among the rebel groups. Putin wants Assad to stay on (as does Iran and Hezbollah for different reasons). Putin is therefore hardly of a mindset to use the “transitional government” mechanism to see off Assad.

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