Syria: It Can Only End When There Are Too Many Shrouds For All Sides Involved. That Moment Has Not Yet Come
Ossie Makepeace writes from Beirut: The latest UN-Arab League peace envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has finished his first session of talks with President Bashar al Assad. As expected, even by Mr Brahimi, he drew a diplomatic blank. Frankly, why would anyone expect anything else?
He said what we all know: that the Syrian crisis is deteriorating and that it is becoming ‘a threat to the world’. Which of course is exactly what Bashar al Assad and his surviving administration want to happen. Their only chance of a negotiated way out of the bloody war is for the rest of the world – starting in the oil lands of the Middle East – to fear that the war will spread.
All the time it was judged that the civil war in Syria would remain just that – contained within Syria’s borders. Then the effects of the crisis would be manageable. Syria could burn down but the other houses on the block including the House of Saud would not be set on fire. If that seems unlikely, then you have only to look at the actions of neighbours and their allies since it all started eighteen months ago.
It started in March 2011. The trigger was the Arab Spring: the sense that rebellion rather than revolution was indeed possible and that people-power speaking through their mobiles to rally opposition would be photographed, written about and filmed to such an extent that the whole world could stare down from their comfortable seats, as if dropping in on the World Series. Tahrir Square became a spectator sport.
As rebellion became effective so the promises it gave spread throughout the region. In March 2011, it reached Syria’s southern city of Deraa. It did so not as a result of the actions of some existing underground group, but when a bunch of kids painted slogans on the school wall and were arrested, tortured and accused of treason by al Assad’s security people.
From the cellars to the rooftops of Deraa people emerged, most uncertainly at first, then determinedly, to protest against the arrests. The police opened fire, killing too many for the protest to whimper away.
The rebellion spread in hours: demonstrators, now in their hundreds, were daily shot at as they took to streets across Syria demanding change and al Assad’s going.
By July, the thousands were hundreds of thousands. The streets and rubbled buildings of Homs, Houla, Aleppo, Deir al-Zour, Idib were added to the powerful imagery as the rest of the region and beyond watched, apparently helpless to stop the war. Each side was determined to crush the other and soon the rebels had an uncoordinated rabble of lightly armed militia that was hopefully but inaccurately dubbed by Western Media as an army.
By the summer of 2012, an extrapolation from various aid agencies suggested that a further destabilising factor was the displacement of more than a million people within Syria and on the move across the borders into Turkey, Jordan and the ever vulnerable to instability factors, Lebanon.
According to the UN humanitarian director, Valerie Amos, some 2.5 million Syrians within the country needed assistance to survive. So, 18 months on from Deraa, what have the presumably powerful Western or Western-sponsored powers done to stop this slow moving carnage? Not much is the short answer.
Dangerously, the Western nations have had a hand in arming the rebels. With an eye on their own oil-related interests, the big UN members have not warned off the likes of Qatar and Saudi Arabia from arming the anti al Assad forces and have joined in the world condemnation that includes demands for al Assad’s going – ignoring the fact that not all Syrians support the rebellion.
It is true that the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and now a member of the shadowy elders group of former world leaders, was sent in as a peace envoy. His mission was never going to get anywhere. Today a solemn-faced Annan is gone and Brahimi looks sad as well. They know, but can’t easily accept that there are three factors in the future of this war.
First is the ability of al Assad & Co to keep the loyalty of the wider army. The innermost Republican Guard’s loyalty, for the moment at least, is not questioned. But as powerful as it is, even the top league 4th Division can only work if the rest of the ‘green’ army stays loyal. Secondly, the rebellion still has no true centre of political and military gravity. It needs a tough and trusted thinking system if it is to survive, as more and more displaced and weary civilians lose faith in what they are trying to achieve and plead for the rebels to go away otherwise al Assad’s men will come and kill them as they crouch in their already wrecked villages.
The third element for regional analysis is international intervention in Syria. That intervention has not come on a grand scale as it did, say, in Libya. It cannot. The targets are not the same and the consequences for the civilian population unthinkably horrid.
There’s a fourth element to consider: regionally, Syria’s role as an influence in the tenuous stability of Lebanon and even Israel is historically vital.
Ironically, while the UK, the US, Canada and almost everyone else calls for the al Assads to go, those same governments are desperate to maintain Syria as a strong regional player. A further irony is that Turkey, so publicly opposed to the Syrian government, is the other strong element but would want to support a strong Syria. And to one side, Iran very much needs an al Assad Syria to survive while the rest of the region wants Iran to fail.
So we have Turkey pushing al Assad’s downfall but fearful of Syria as a collapsed state. Iran supporting al Assad but equally fearful of a collapsed Syrian state.
Here then is the matrix laid before Brahimi. When he met al Assad in Damascus he apparently had ‘serious, frank and comprehensive talks’. What else could they be? He left empty handed. He brought nothing to the table in Damascus and al Assad had nothing to give him,
They both know that the only way this war will end is when there are too many shrouds for either side. That state of things has not yet been reached.