“Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is seeking, through his diplomatic contacts, to convince Egypt to mediate and convince Saudi Arabia—currently Egypt’s biggest ally—to amend its strict stance regarding him and his regime. These are documented diplomatic contacts, and it is through these contacts that Assad is trying to suggest there are major disputes between him and Iran, especially regarding the role of religion within the state and regime. [Assad is doing so] knowing that an Egyptian response [to his demands] may be unlikely!”
This is what Lebanon’s Annahar newspaper columnist Sarkis Naoum wrote last week. Naoum’s credibility makes us pause and reflect on his words. Assad resorting to asking Cairo for help confirms all the information we have: he is going through the worst period since the revolution erupted in early 2011. But is there really a dispute between him and the Iranians? Is the Egyptian leadership willing to mediate to save the worst dictator the region has known in 100 years? Is it possible for Saudi Arabia to restore relations with him?
Many reasons make it impossible for Saudi Arabia to accept a deal with Assad, regardless of what the deal is and who the mediators are. Among these reasons is that a quarter of a million people have been killed by the Assad regime, and this is unforgivable regardless of Assad’s repentance. Another reason is that the struggle has expanded beyond being a mere dispute with Assad. I don’t rule out the besieged Assad resorting to asking Cairo for mediation, seeking its help to save himself, but it is extremely unlikely for Saudi Arabia to consider his wishes.
If Assad is really trying to deceive the Saudis and the Egyptians, alleging there is a dispute between him and Iran due to religious interference in state affairs, then no one will believe him because he has no leverage with the Iranians, who are defending him and have spent so much to keep him in power. The Syrian regime’s military and security forces, which have been used to rule the country for the past four decades, are in terrible shape. The Assad regime would collapse overnight without Iran’s support.
Assad has tried to convince Saudi Arabia to alter its stance several times, but he has failed because he does not intend to give up power, even within the context of a reconciliation process that preserves what is left of the Syrian state and includes some of its current leaders and officials. Saudi public opinion also strongly agrees with the Saudi government’s stance, and it is impossible the public will accept reconciliation with Assad, whom they consider the worst ruler the region has ever known.
Therefore, Assad must forget about reconciliation and take the only path available, which is to pack up and depart to either Moscow or Tehran. If Egypt wants to bargain with him, it can grant him residency there, although this will upset many people.
The Egyptian position on the conflict that erupted in Syria in 2011 is certainly confusing. In the beginning, the Muslim Brotherhood, then in government, supported the Iranian suggestion of a reconciliation deal based on keeping Assad in power while granting the opposition marginal posts in the government.
The Brotherhood’s stance thus harmonized with their strong ties with Iran—ties established after Khomeini’s revolution three decades ago. Meanwhile, the Iranians are still the biggest supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Sudan and Gaza. Later on, during the Muslim Brotherhood’s last days in power, and prior to the June 30 revolution, Mohamed Mursi’s government adopted a different stance as Mursi announced his support for a change of regime in Syria during a ceremony that included delegations from Gulf Islamic groups.
Truth be told, what we are saying about these options for Assad is no longer of much importance, as we’ve gone beyond discussions of when the Syrian regime will fall. It only survives now thanks to Iranian military support, and currently dreams of some sort of miracle that prolongs its time in power.
I think the only true miracle would be if Assad requests the Egyptian president’s help in allowing him to exit Damascus within the context of a political agreement that maintains small parts of the regime, and that is in accord with the agreement reached during the Geneva I conference. This is the sort of mediation which Egypt can take on and which could be accepted by the Syrian opposition, amid the expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the West’s involvement in the crisis, and the failures of Assad and his allies.