The outrage sparked by the photo of a little 3-year-old boy whose body had washed up on a Turkish beach gave urgent impetus to the international community to address the Syrian crisis from which the boy and his family were trying to flee.
Indeed, a new and serious effort to forge a political settlement of the war that has raged for more than four years has been set in motion. It must be acknowledged that the seeds of this effort were planted by Russia, with its military intervention and fierce airstrikes that began on Sept. 30.
In the international media the Syrian crisis is usually summed up as follows: the Syrian people started peaceful protests demanding freedom and democracy, but the government from the very beginning used the military to mercilessly crush the protesters. The people, out of necessity to protect themselves, were obliged to take up arms against the government forces and since then the situation has spiraled into an abyss of violence and devastation.
The crisis in Syria has been tragically exacerbated and drawn out by those who insist that the primary obstacle to peace is President Bashar Assad and his harsh policies and brutal actions. But this is a myth propagated by certain flagrantly biased parties to the conflict.
Another mistaken belief and persistent rumor is that the Syrian Army is seriously weakened and in disarray. The reality is that Assad has retained command of the army and has maintained the cohesion of his government.
In an interview that appeared in the March 18 issue of the French journal Orient XXI, Lakhdar Brahimi, who had resigned the previous year from his post as U.N. and Arab League special envoy to Syria, said “we were all wrong” in underestimating the robustness of the Assad regime and in predicting its imminent collapse.
The Western countries, he noted, misunderstood the situation because their presence in Syria was superficial, and generally limited to their embassies in Damascus. The Russians, in contrast, did not make that mistake. Based on the knowledge they have gained through their longtime presence throughout the country, they have said from the beginning of the conflict that the regime would survive.
It is noteworthy in this regard that Russian President Vladimir Putin recently invited Assad to Moscow for bilateral talks. Assad arrived unaccompanied by aides or advisers. One can imagine that the two leaders must have discussed some very sensitive questions that may eventually help resolve the situation.
In the effort to reach a political solution, it would be counterproductive at this stage to insist on determining Assad’s fate. To do so would only prolong the war and the unspeakable suffering of the Syrian people.
Throughout my tenure as Japan’s ambassador to Syria from 2006 to 2010, I traveled 80,000 km by car, visiting almost every part of the country. I made the acquaintance of high-level officials — including Assad — and military personnel. I also met people from all walks of life and different socioeconomic backgrounds, and members of every ethnic and religious group.
My observation of Syria before 2011 is also entirely consistent with the view former U.S. President Jimmy Carter expressed in his Oct. 23 New York Times article, “A Five-Nation Plan to End the Syrian Crisis,” where he writes, “Before the revolution began in March 2011, Syria set a good example of harmonious relations among its many different ethnic and religious groups, including … Sunnis, Alawites and Shiites. The Assad family had ruled the country since 1970, and was very proud of this relative harmony among these diverse groups.”
We have seen a reassessment of the situation in Syria by the international community since the beginning of September. With that change and with the expanded ministerial meeting that convened in Vienna on Oct. 30, there is reason to hope that a political solution can be found. Because Iran was included as a full-fledged participant, the meeting was able to produce a positive joint communique.
There remain serious differences among the countries concerned. The resolution of these differences will be determined in large part by the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. The expanded ministerial meeting in Vienna was preceded by a restricted meeting of four countries; Iran was not invited. It is imperative that subsequent restricted meetings comprise all five of these countries. One can imagine that with Russia and Iran on one side, and Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the other, the U.S. will be positioned more or less in the middle. During the past four years it has become quite clear that U.S. interests in the Middle East have changed. This shift certainly affects Washington’s relationships with Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Moreover, the U.S. and Russia now share some crucial interests, despite all the harsh mutual recriminations. Interestingly, in response to American charges that Russia’s recent airstrikes in Syria have targeted Free Syrian Army sites rather than Islamic State strongholds, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has proposed that Russia and the U.S., which has also been conducting airstrikes, share information.
Now the U.S. will have to show its caliber as a superpower to lead the five-nation meeting to a real breakthrough. The U.S. has the authority, capability and wisdom to achieve this goal. The conditions for a solution are now more hopeful than ever. And so I am confident in saying that the beginning of the end of the crisis is at hand.
Masaki Kunieda served as Japan’s ambassador to Syria from 2006 to 2010. His publications, in Japanese, include “Syria,” “The Middle East: Unreported Syrian Reality” and “The Islamic State.”
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