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    Middle East
     Oct 18, 2012

October peace surprise in Syria
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

As improbable as it seems right now, we may be on the verge of witnessing a much-welcome October surprise in Syria in the form of a three-day cease fire. After months of relentless bloodshed, the warring parties might be persuaded to pause during the upcoming Id al-Adha, starting October 25.

A temporary respite is desperately needed for the civilian population throughout the country, many of whom have become refugees or are bunkered inside their homes, as well as by the plethora of stakeholders in the Syrian theater, whose diverse interests may be converging toward a ceasefire.

That this is happening can be garnered from the Tehran visit of UN's (and Arab League's) special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar


Brahimki, who has appealed to Iran's leadership to use their influence with Syria to bring about a pause in fighting, hoping to build on such a momentum for a more long-lasting peace.

As the Syrian conflict increasingly tears the country apart and risks the stability of neighboring countries, the timing of Brahimi's new push for a ceasefire is right and in all likelihood the embattled regime in Damascus will consent to his suggestion, provided that the armed opposition also concurs with the need to give the civilians a brief space to breath free from the military claustrophobia wrapped around them for nearly two years.

By all indications, the mood in Turkey is also in favor of Brahimi's proposal, in light of recent internal and external developments, which have soured Ankara's relations with so many of its neighbors - Iran, Russia, Iraq - and thus put its hostile approach toward Syria under serious question.

The Syrian government's criticism of Turkey's "neo-Ottoman" ambitions in the Arab world last week did not go unnoticed in the Arab media, particularly Egypt, whose president, Mohammed Morsi, has been trying to play a constructive conflict-mediation role in Syria. That criticism was leveled by Syrian information minister, Omran al-Zubi, who criticized Ankara's recent call for a provisional government headed by the vice-president by stating, "Turkey isn't the Ottoman Sultanate; the Turkish Foreign Ministry doesn't name custodians in Damascus, Mecca, Cairo and Jerusalem."

Much depends on Ankara using its influence with the Syrian opposition to turn Brahimi's idea into a reality. Certainly, if Turkey agrees, then it would be rather difficult for other stakeholders such as Saudi Arabia to continue fueling a seemingly endless conflict in Syria, given Riyadh's bankrolling of Sunni fighters battling the Alawite-led regime. Another aspect of Brahimi's proposal could be an unwritten pledge by all stakeholders to refrain from funneling arms into Syria during the three-day halt in fighting.

Both sides in the conflict must weigh the potential pros and cons of such a lull in fighting, in order to determine whether or not it is in their strictly military interests. Damascus is likely concerned that the rebels will full advantage to re-arm, re-supply or take good positions. Even more important is the question of how to make cease-fire a more meaningful one that is accompanied with political dialogue between the government and the rebels?

This needs to be addressed ahead of the appointed hour of Id al-Adha, celebrated by all Muslims. This would require skillful negotiation by the UN envoy and a host of other players, on the ground in Syria. In addition to an overarching peace strategy, centered around the UN's "six point" peace plan, this may require the "micro-strategy" of negotiating an extension of the three-day cease-fire locally, from one town or city to another, in light of the heterogeneous and diverse nature of the armed opposition groups, headed by the Free Syrian Army. One advantage of an extended ceasefire is that it might trigger a more unified response by the rebels and close the gap between the political and military arms of the opposition.

Needless to say, the US and other big powers have a major role, which can be either constructive or obstructionist vis-a-vis the Brahimi initiative cited above. If the White House opts to lean on Ankara and Riyadh to consent to this initiative, then not only this will substantially increase its chance of success, it also enables Brahimi to plot the next steps.

This may be achieved partly by drawing from history and lessons in conflict-management, including the seducement of warring parties toward dialogue and negotiations by a "dance of incentives", ie, a mix of rewards and tangible benefits offered to lure the opposing parties around the negotiation table.

No doubt, there will be "spoilers" who would want to neutralize Brahimi's efforts and, therefore, Brahimi must come up with a sound strategy of how to turn the "spoilers" into participants in a peace dialogue. Case in point, if it turns out that Saudi Arabia is unenthusiastic about the proposed cease-fire, then Brahimi must rely on the instrument of public criticism to bring the Saudis into line. He could also enlist the support of such UN sources as the Peacebuilding Commission to help devise a sound "post-conflict" map of action.

At the moment, however, the first priority is to bring about the three-day cease-fire that would be a tiny step away from the humanitarian catastrophe enveloping Syria nowadays, thus giving Syrians a taste of normalcy that could hopefully spur a great yearning for its continuation instead of melting in the hot furnace of renewed fighting. In this regard, Brahimi's challenge is less to convince Iran and other supporters of the Syrian government to go along with his script for cease-fire, and more to persuade the anti-government plethora of forces who are the sworn enemies of the Ba'athist regime and, what is more, include many "foreign fighters" who are not answerable to any Syrian authority. Still, it is a sure bet that once the government and the main Syrian opposition groups consent to the three-day armistice, the it would be difficult for the others to ignore it.

A role for UN peacekeepers?
Undoubtedly, there is a role for the UN peacekeepers in a conflict-resolution scenario, whereby some of the "blue helmets" positioned nearby, eg, Lebanon, could be loaned to the noble efforts at creating a buffer between the warring parties inside Syria. Damascus is unlikely to agree to this, however, if it means a de facto recognition of rebel strongholds around the country.

If not done the right way, a UN intervention may in fact spur the disintegration of national unity, which is why at this stage the idea of dispatching UN peacekeepers to Syria is rather premature and must await the result of a preliminary negotiation of a temporary pause in armed conflict. In other words, only within the confines of a comprehensive conflict-resolution framework that envisages a transition to free elections and s on, does the idea of dispatching UN peacekeepers to Syria makes any sense. Until then, it is more prudent to limit the UN's role to acting as a catalyst for political dialogue between the government and its armed opposition.

Meanwhile, the emerging October surprise may turn out to be elusive of a broader cease-fire, yet still significant as a timely leap forward.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press). For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations, CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

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