Seldom has the dividing line between the forces of moderation and the forces of
extremism been so clear in the Middle East. The extremist, anti-West, Iran-led
Shi’ite Crescent, consisting of Iraq (largely operating at Iran’s behest), Syria
and Lebanon, heavily subsidized by Tehran with political capital and financial
resources for the past three decades, is now under serious threat of collapse
thanks to the crack in its most critical link: Syria’s Assad regime. On the
other hand, the human tragedy in Syria has created a rare common interest among
the old and the new Arab regimes, Turkey, the US and the EU in the emergence of
a representative government in Damascus.
Nonetheless, while Iran, Russia
and China are doing their utmost to prevent Assad’s fall, the international and
regional forces of moderation have yet to rise to the challenge. Unless this
loose alliance of moderate forces closes ranks and makes a decisive effort to
break the Shi’ite Crescent, the Syrian people will be left alone to face an
ongoing massacre and will miss a historic opportunity to join a new, peaceful
and potentially more democratically- oriented Middle East. Turkey especially
stands to gain from a more vigorous involvement of the forces of
On February 16, 2012, the United Nations General Assembly
voted overwhelmingly for a resolution backing the Arab League (AL) plan calling
for Bashar Assad to step down, and strongly condemned the widespread and
systematic human rights violations by his forces, further demanding that the
government immediately cease all acts of violence.
resolution is not binding, it offers powerful moral support to the Syrian
opposition, especially after the Russian- Chinese veto earlier this month of a
UNSC resolution to the same effect.
Equally, the UNGA resolution strongly
fortifies the moral standing of the AL, Turkey and the West, enabling them to
venture beyond their current tentative positions, given the apparent failure of
all other initiatives thus far.
The AL initiative, calling for a transfer
of power to Syrian Vice President Farouk Sharaa, the formation of a unity
government, and the referral of this initiative to the UNSC to assist in its
implementation, has been dysfunctional from the beginning.
transfer to the Syrian vice president, even if the initiative had passed in the
UNSC, would deliver zero change in Syria given that Sharaa himself has been a
prominent member of Syria’s ruling apparatus for almost 30 years.
similar scenario, proposed by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council, managed
(though by no means perfectly) to defuse an explosion in Yemen. But whereas the
removal of Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh has persuaded the Yemeni public,
the problem in Syria is not with Bashar Assad per se but with the entire
government apparatus within which he is encased. That is why the AL needs to
avoid symbolic actions and face the reality on the ground, however bitter and
unsettling it may be.
The other AL initiative, calling for the UNSC to
create a joint UN-Arab peacekeeping force for Syria, even in the unlikely event
that it passes in the UN veto-controlled body amounts to nothing more than
another exercise in futility. For starters, there is no peace to keep in Syria.
The failures of UN peacekeepers in Rwanda, Bosnia and Congo, suffice to
illustrate the UN’s inability to fill such a role in the absence of both peace
and cooperation between the conflicting parties on the ground. Sending a UN
peacekeeping mission to Syria at this time would only help the Assad regime stay
in power even longer.
FINALLY, THE reforms introduced by the Assad
government, such as holding a referendum on a new constitution as well as
parliamentary elections, are merely a ploy aimed at buying more time. Therefore,
it should come as no surprise that these bogus reforms have been supported by
Russia and more recently by China. Being introduced by the very government whose
removal the Syrian people demands, these reforms will not be accepted. The
Syrian people have sacrificed too much to settle for scraps exacted under duress
from a government which has lost its bearings and credibility.
his cohorts refused to make a solid commitment, they were engaged in protracted
negotiations to dilute any meaningful reforms, and subsequently were involved in
systematic prevarication, all the while persisting in violent
Syria’s problem lies not in the wording of its laws, but in
the regime that drafts and implements these laws.
The AL meeting in
Tunisia on February 24 should have capitalized on the powerful message sent by
the 137 nations at the UNGA condemning the Syrian security forces’ onslaught on
its people while providing moral support that goes beyond polemics and opens the
door for real action on the ground. Now the members of the moderate camp should
implement bold measures, such as the establishment of a “Freedom Corridor” by
carving out a portion of Syrian territory in the north near the border with
Turkey. As in Libya, a no-fly zone, patrolled by NATO and AL member states,
should be established immediately over this corridor, but without engaging in
combat with the government forces, except in defense of the
This corridor would provide a safe haven for civilian refugees
and would receive military defectors while serving as a base for arming the
Syrian Free Army, as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both of whom serve
on the Senate Armed Services Committee, have recently advocated. Moreover, the
corridor will allow the Syrian National Council (SNC) to set foot on Syrian
ground, thereby paving the way for its recognition by the AL, Western and other
In addition, the SNC should establish a shadow government
composed of non-ideological professionals and technocrats to begin planning for a
NATO members, particularly France (which already advanced
the idea of a humanitarian air corridor last November) as well as the AL are
likely to support such a proposal.
Israel can quietly contribute by
opening and monitoring closely its Syrian border for refugees from southern
Syria for whom the advocated northern safety zone is beyond their reach. This
Israeli action can be taken in coordination with Jordan, which shares borders
with both Syria and Israel. But the largest responsibility lies with
Of all the moderate camp members, Turkey is the largest
stakeholder in Syria.
Short of an intervention by the international
community, the current conflict in Syria will soon turn into a full-scale civil
war that will flood Turkey with refugees, empower the PKK base in northern
Syria, and secure an enlarged Iranian influence on its immediate neighbor, all
to Turkey’s disadvantage. At the same time, Turkey is best located
geographically and politically to allow and support the establishment of this
corridor along its southeastern border.
A Turkey that takes the
initiative would not only demonstrate true leadership in the Middle East and
further strengthen its alliance with the West, but it would also bridge its
relations with an Arab world that has become increasingly worried about a
neo-Ottoman foreign policy in the region. For Ankara, it is time to reconcile
with the bitter reality that there is no middle ground: either stop Iran in
Syria and end the killing fields or surrender Syria to Iran, thereby further
encouraging Iran to pursue its ambition of becoming the region’s hegemon,
potentially equipped with nuclear capabilities.
For all intents and
purposes, Syria has turned into the battleground between the forces of
moderation and the forces of extremism in the Middle East. Feeble attempts by
the international community will lead nowhere as long as they ignore the
realities of the Baathist regime in Syria. At the same time, any prospect of
reaching some kind of an arrangement with Assad meant to empower the Syrian
people is an illusion.
Removing Syria from Iran’s grasp, however, while
freeing the Syrian people from Assad’s shackles, will have dramatic geopolitical
implications as it will also change the power equation throughout the Middle
To be sure, decoupling Syria from Iran would further underline the
regional and international isolation of Tehran and might avert military action
against Iran by either Israel or the US, the aim of which would be to end its
The victory of Iran & Co. in Syria would be
catastrophic for the region and should be stopped given the opportunity
currently available. By ensuring a regime change supportive of the Syrian
people’s yearning for freedom, the Shi’ite Crescent would be broken, placing
insurmountable pressure on Iran to end its meddling within the affairs of its
Arab neighbors.The writer is a professor of International Relations and
Middle Eastern Studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University
and is also a Senior Fellow and the Middle East Project Director at the World
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