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  • Dec 29, 2014
  • Updated: 10:56am
CommentInsight & Opinion

Find common ground over Syria

Javier Solana warns of dangerous spillover effects if the domestic sectarian conflict is not pacified

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 August, 2012, 9:18pm

The feeling is growing stronger by the day that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime is approaching a tipping point. The international community must think seriously about how to minimise the dangers inherent in Syria's domestic turmoil.

Lack of agreement within the UN Security Council has prolonged the conflict. What began as a popular uprising inspired by the Arab spring has taken on increasingly sectarian and radical tones.

In particular, there is a growing danger of Sunni retaliation against the Alawite minority, which comprises 12per cent of the population, but controls the government, the economy and the army. The Alawites, who overcame second-class citizenship only when Assad's Baath Party came to power in 1963, now believe their survival is linked to the regime's. If the Syrian opposition does not take the Alawites' concerns seriously, the country could be wracked by years of civil war.

The regional consequences are already being felt: refugee flows into neighbouring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon threaten to bring these countries directly into the conflict. Chaos could easily reach Iraq, too, where the possible fall of the Syrian regime seems to be revitalising Sunni resistance to Nouri al-Maliki's predominantly Shiite government.

The outcome of the Syrian conflict will also affect the Middle East's alignment of power. A Sunni takeover after Assad's fall would mean a change of strategy with respect to Iran and its Lebanese Shiite ally, Hezbollah, whose viability might be in danger, as a Sunni government in Syria would most likely cut off the conduit for arms flowing from Iran to Lebanon.

That would doubtless affect Iran's position in the ongoing international talks on its nuclear programme. But, as long as the Syrian conflict continues, it will be difficult to make any progress.

The Security Council's members agree on how to address Iran's nuclear programme, but not on steps to resolve the Syria conflict, owing to fundamental disagreements between Russia (and China) and the rest. But these are, in effect, parallel negotiations, closely dependent on each other for progress.

In order to reach an agreement, it is essential that Turkey, the Gulf states and the Arab League forge a common position. Only in this way could they win the backing of sectors of the Syrian opposition and bring their positions closer to those of Syria's minorities, which cannot be left out. This would set in motion a process leading to a transition policy in Syria. No alternative is more promising for Syria and the region.

Javier Solana, former secretary general of Nato, is distinguished senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. Copyright: Project Syndicate

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