Analysis |

Syria's Besieged Assad Finds Unlikely Allies: Israel and an Opposition Leader

Israel's alleged attack on a munitions convoy bound for Lebanon may have inadvertently thrown the Syrian president a lifeline, just as rebel Syrian groups seek a nonviolent solution to the civil war.

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

This week's reported Israeli attack on Syria came at a relatively convenient time for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

True, Syria comes out of the incident looking defeated and humiliated, and unable to respond even through its Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon. And, up to now, Hezbollah has limited its response to a sharp statement of condemnation that, in all probability, was coordinated with the presidential palace in Damascus.

But foreign media reports of an incursion of Israeli aircraft over Syria and Lebanon came at the same time as the chairman of the Syrian National Coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, issued a surprising statement announcing his readiness to sit down for talks with representatives of the Syrian regime. His aim is to halt the bloodletting and pave the way for an interim phase involving a transfer of power.

Khatib had previously refused any suggestion of possible talks. However, he made the statement against the backdrop of growing calls - both within Syria and outside the country - for national dialogue in an effort to halt the fighting, and after no military resolution appeared in the offing.

His statement prompted an immediate response from the Syrian National Council, which is a member of the coalition that Khatib heads. It said Khatib's stance "does not represent the coalition and is contrary to the Doha conference declaration that no negotiations would be held with a criminal regime that is slaughtering Syrian civilians."

In the Arab press, though, Khatib's statement was seen as an admission on the part of the opposition of its failure to convince the international community to intervene militarily in Syria, as was done in Libya and Mali. It was also seen as agreement, in principle, to a proposal presented by the regime that calls for multilateral national dialogue as the only way to resolve the crisis.

Up to now, Assad has contended that events in Syria are not related to the Arab Spring uprisings or a revolution seeking freedom for the Syrian people. Instead, he says, they are a Western plot directed by Israel and the United States (and its proxies in the Arab world), and a war against what the Americans see as the axis of evil in an effort to exclude Syria from the resistance.

Assad had no actual proof in this regard, but this week's attack has now clearly brought Israel into the picture. The headline Thursday in the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, which is seen as close to the regime, reflects this sentiment. "Israel begins campaign to topple regime in Syria," the headline reads.

At the same time, the call for national dialogue also received backing this week from another direction. It came from a player that is less well known in the West: the Syrian National Coodination Body, headed by Haytham Mana'a, a longtime opposition figure who is not part of the coalition of opposition forces outside the country. Mana'a was in Geneva this week calling on the international community, particularly the United States and Russia, to support a plan that would end the war in Syria."

A democratic, civilian state is the only solution to the crisis in Syria," he said, "and tens of thousands of Syrians have taken to the streets in support of this solution. But their voices have been silenced or have vanished with the increasing resort to arms and the war that is being conducted. The world needs to understand that most of the Syrian people oppose armed struggle and the armed militias, and the support for them is not a solution to the crisis, but the reverse."

Leading Syrian intellectuals and writers, including the noted poet Adonis - who was a candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature - have advocated dialogue as a solution to the crisis, saying that the country has become a war zone in which the strategic interests of the countries in the region are being fought over rather than fighting for the well-being of the Syrian people.

Now Assad could easily cite the Israeli attack as part of the plot against him and his regime, and present the opposition and some of the countries supporting them with two options. One is national dialogue, leading to an agreement in advance of presidential elections in 2014. The other is continued warfare, in light of the international disagreements over Syria's future, and weak international support that could lead to a divided and ruined Syria controlled by armed militias. In that case, it is the Syrian civilians who would pay the steepest price for the situation.

Bashar Assad giving his speech on Jan. 6, 2013.Credit: AP
Rebel fighters celebrating a victory in northwestern Syria in January 2013.Credit: AFP

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