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A Syrian woman cries as she leaves a residential block in Aleppo, Syria, reportedly hit by an explosives-filled barrel dropped by a government forces helicopter on March 18.

The proxy war in Syria, an International Crisis

During his recent tour in the Gulf, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson discussed the Gulf Crisis and the situation in Syria with several Arab leaders. Tillerson made several statements about the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and finding a diplomatic solution to the unrest in the region. Yet, the motives behind Tillerson’s statement about Assad remain unclear. The most recent statement comes after a period of inconsistent rhetoric by Tillerson and U.S. representative to the U.N. Nikki Haley about Assad’s future and a solution in Syria. Until now, the Trump administration has not demonstrated a clear policy toward Syria, or a plan to deal with the crisis there. Confusing comments from the Trump administration show clearly that it has adopted a policy of “No Policy” toward the Syrian case, not unlike the previous administration under Barack Obama. For five years, Obama seemed incapable of making any decision related to Syria or finding a solution to the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, except of course, for furious statements about crimes committed by Assad against Syrian civilians and demands that the dictator must leave voluntarily.

This situation comes at a time of scandals in the U.S., especially the probe into Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s potential cooperation with the foreign nation. In the latest development, this week Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller filed charges against several former members of Trump’s campaign staff for crimes related to communications with Russia during the campaign. If it is proven that Russia did in fact meddle to help Trump win the election, this will certainly impact Russian-American relations at all levels, including the Syrian case.

This possibility has many drawbacks, the most worrying of which would be a possible increase of Russian dominance on the Syrian issue and the exclusivity of its intervention and development of solutions. Yet, if this happened, it might allow Qatari or Saudi diplomacy to play a role in Syria, especially if Russia wants to extricate itself from the Syrian quagmire at a lower cost than was incurred in its previous bitter experience in Afghanistan. This seems more likely to happen now than it did earlier, mainly after the Saudi King’s visit to Moscow and increased talks about better coordination between Arabs and Russia. Therefore, it is possible to envision a Russian role being more coordinated with the Gulf states regarding both regional issues, and those directly related to the Gulf States’ national security, including the Syrian case.

Tillerson asserted this week that there is no future for Assad in Syria’s rule. This pronouncement came after the latest UN report, which blamed the Syrian regime for a Sarin gas attack that killed 83 Syrian civilians in April of this year. Yet, the dilemma of the Syrian people and the Gulf States supporting the Syrian revolution is how to hold Assad accountable for his regime’s use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. Currently, because of Russia’s use of its veto power against any attempt to hold the Assad regime accountable for this action, the United Nations does not have any legal basis to act, despite diplomatic attempts, particularly by the Gulf states, to achieve justice for some of Assad’s victims.

Right now, the main issue is such an end can be achieved. Within this uncertainty are questions as to how the Arabs and the Gulf States can continue supporting a revolution calling for the overthrow of Syria’s dictator with a counter-opinion by the Russians that sees Syria’s future as being with Assad. The current Syrian opposition seems incapable of playing a significant diplomatic role or even being committed to a united body without Qatari and Saudi mediation to unite them, regardless of their differences. The opposition continues to deal with the Syrian dilemma in an unrealistic way. Their policies have contributed to prolonging the Syrian crisis and the suffering of the Syrian people, and have certainly helped Assad remain in power.

Yet, there is hope for a solution, since the Syrian case has arguably united all the Arab countries (except for Egypt, which sympathizes with the military regime in Syria). Even after the Gulf crisis, Saudi Arabia and Qatar worked together when the UN report accused Assad’s regime of using chemical weapons in the Khan Sheikhoun attack. The list of those who have demanded Assad’s departure is long, including the previous American administration, European leaders, the heads of many Asian and African countries, and most of the Arab countries, particularly the Gulf states.

The New York Times recently discussed the proxy war in Syria and said that it is still going on, with Assad’s future seemingly more secure than ever. On the battlefield, no one seems capable of defeating his military forces. Although he is an outcast from most of the regional and international community, he may yet emerge as a winner in this conflict — even if he results as the leader of a weak state, controlled by foreign powers and lacking the resources to rebuild the country. Yet, Assad seems unlikely to have the approval of the Syrian people, given all the suffering they have endured since 2011 at the hands of pro-government forces.

The long history of human rights violations, massacres, forced displacement and ethnic cleansing committed by Assad means his regime can never be treated as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Yet, the real question right now, after the scandals coming from the White House, is who will leave first — Donald Trump and his administration in Washington, or Bashar al-Assad and his regime in Damascus?

– Gulf International Forum

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