Peaceful solution is "virtually impossible"

More than 150,000 people have fled the violence in Syria Keystone

Syria’s security authorities may have been dealt a blow in last week’s deadly attack in Damascus, but Bashar al-Assad’s regime still has a few trump cards up its sleeve, according to Geneva-based expert Mohammad-Reza Djalili.

This content was published on July 25, 2012 - 16:44
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The former professor of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies says Assad could try to withdraw to a stronghold in the Alawite mountains on the Mediterranean coast.

Djalili, a political scientist, says however a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict now looks “virtually impossible”. And should Assad’s regime collapse, then “Iran will go down with it”, as the Syrian leader plays a crucial element in Tehran’s regional policy.

swissinfo.ch: Is the regime of President Assad about to collapse after last week’s bomb attack which killed at least four of its top figures?

Mohammad-Reza Djalili: The attack in the heart of Damascus at the national security headquarters certainly had a strong symbolic impact, but it did not decapitate the regime. Assad still holds important trump cards.

It is supported by the Alawi, Christian and a part of the Sunni communities which make up more than a third of the Syrian population. Also the military and the whole repressive system remain very powerful despite some high-ranking army generals turning their back on the regime.

The threat to use chemical weapons against a foreign intervention is part of the war of nerves.

swissinfo.ch: Is there a risk that the conflict could spread to other neighbouring countries?

M-R.D.: It has already happened as we can see from the thousands of Syrians who have fled to Lebanon. The two countries are closely linked and a crisis in Syria inevitably has an impact on Lebanon. But let’s hope it does not lead to renewed internal strife.

Jordan, as well as Turkey with its Kurdish minority, are also drawn into it.

swissinfo.ch: Does Syria face a similar situation to Lebanon and is it likely to get bogged down in a civil war?

M-R.D.: We can’t exclude it as the ethnic and religious make-up of the two countries are very much alike.

It remains to be seen how the complex situation is going to unfold. Syria needs a thorough change at the top if it wants to escape civil strife.

Assad and his political entourage might also decide to flee to a mountainous Alawi stronghold in the northwest of the country  to set up a separate entity from where they could try to regain power.

In such a case the regime might want to provoke a confrontation with opponents and Syria might be split as a result.

swissinfo.ch: Is it possible to avoid a settling of accounts between the different communities when the Assad regime falls?

M-R.D.: I’m afraid it is virtually impossible and no longer realistic. A more or less peaceful solution was only possible in the first ten months of the conflict.

swissinfo.ch: To what extent does the Syrian conflict show a new balance of power between emerging economies and the West?

M-R.D.: The conflict certainly has a global dimension. Russia and China, as well as the western powers stake their interests in the region. This leads to both sides blocking each other in the United Nations Security Council.

Then there is a regional dimension for Syria’s neighbours – Lebanon, Turkey, Israel and Iraq.

But the most important regional player is no doubt Iran. It has had a long-standing alliance with Damascus, thereby has won access to the eastern Mediterranean sea.

swissinfo.ch: Does Tehran actively support the Assad regime?

M-R.D.: Iran stands 100 per cent behind Assad and pursues the policy of Russia towards Assad. Moscow argues the uprising is a result of outside intervention, notably by the West and by Israel.

The Syrian forces have not only received weapons from Tehran but also information and expert know-how on cyber war. Iran also has close ties with the Iraqi government which also supports Assad.

swissinfo.ch: Is the West trying to weaken Syria to indirectly hit Iran?

M-R.D.: Iran is a key player in the Shi’ite axis which includes Iraq, Syria, the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and Palestine.

If Assad’s regime collapses then Iran will go down with it as Assad is a crucial element in Tehran’s regional policy. Many countries would be pleased to see the majority Sunni taking over and blocking the expansion attempts by Iran.

There is something else at stake for Turkey, which sides with the Sunni regimes in the Gulf states. Considered as a political role model for countries in North Africa and the Middle East undergoing democratic changes, Turkey could play a key part in the region.

Refugees

The UN refugee agency says an estimated 150,000 people have fled the conflict in Syria and the number of displaced people has risen to 1.5 million in the 17-month conflict.

Last week alone, 30,000 people left Syria according to the UNHCR. Nearly 6,000 of them crossed into Lebanon.

Jordan has taken in total of 36,000 refugees over the past few months. The Geneva-based UN agency is setting up facilities for up to 120,000 Syrian refugees.

An estimated 44,000 people fled to Turkey and other countries.

Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said European Union interior ministers agreed at a meeting in Cyprus on July 24 that humanitarian aid should go to victims both in Syria and in neighbouring states.

In the first quarter of 2012 Switzerland had 548 asylum requests from Syrians, an 83.3% rise on the period one year before. However numbers dropped again in the second quarter. Migration officials do not expect a big influx of refugees.

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Swiss aid

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) says its aid efforts focus on the protection of people in Syria and in neighbouring states.

SDC’s aid budget, worth about SFr8.5 million ($8.6 million), is used for families in Lebanon which put up Syrian refugees and for a project to rebuild schools for Syrian children in Jordan.

On Tuesday the agency announced it was releasing another SFr2 million. However, it is not clear yet what projects will be funded.

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