Syria on brink of civil war as diplomacy fails to move Assad


ANALYSIS:The UN draft contained no threat of sanctions, let alone Libyan-style military intervention, writes IAN BLACK

FOR SYRIA’S president, it was business as usual, even as his country experienced one of its most dramatic and violent moments.

On Saturday, Bashar al-Assad was at work in his heavily guarded Damascus palace. Yesterday, he celebrated a Muslim holiday as state media reported triumphantly on the defeat of the “Arab-western conspiracy”.

Ninety minutes north of the capital, in Homs, residents were burying their dead after what Barack Obama condemned as an “unspeakable assault”, a murderous overnight attack that left dozens dead. With at least 6,000 people killed in the past 10 months and international diplomacy in tatters, Syria is teetering on the brink of civil war. Its president shows no sign of changing tack.

Thanks to the vetoes of Russia and China, the UN Security Council failed to pass a watered-down resolution backing a “Syrian-led” political transition. The draft contained no threat of sanctions or punitive action, let alone Libyan-style military intervention.

That defeat was grim news for the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, which put all its eggs in the basket offered by the Arab League – proactive regional diplomacy led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia and backed by the West.

Burhan Ghalioun, the council’s exiled leader, pledged yesterday to work “outside the security council”.

“The SNC’s whole strategy was for the cavalry to come over the hill – whether that meant the Arab League, the UN or Nato,” said a Damascus-based diplomat. “They don’t have an alternative. Their whole raison d’etre has disappeared.” Perhaps, though, suggested analyst Rime Allaf, there is a silver lining. “Russia’s veto showed that Assad’s supporters are not really prepared to negotiate,” she said. “Everything is clearer now that we know – even if things will get worse.” On the ground, the activists of the local co-ordination committees and the fighters of the Free Syrian Army already sound more defiant.

“In the coming days, many Syrians are going to do a lot of soul-searching, ultimately leading to a decision to support armed struggle,” one activist tweeted. “We have to depend solely on Syrians to liberate ourselves,” insisted another.

“Where do I donate to buy arms for the Free Syrian Army?” asked a third.

Overnight, demonstrations in the suburbs of Damascus displayed growing readiness to risk everything. But the balance of forces between the regime and its armed opponents remains terrifyingly unequal. In Homs, BBC correspondent Paul Wood reported from inside the city, it was a battle of “Kalashnikovs versus tanks”.

Propaganda is certainly playing a role. Initial claims of hundreds of dead in the shelling of the Khaldiyeh area of Homs were revised downwards by one opposition group on Sunday as a Syrian minister lambasted “fabricated” information in a “hysterical media war conducted by the armed terrorist gangs and their mouthpieces’’. The bloodshed and destruction, though, are real enough.

So what next? The US, Britain and other western countries made no secret of their fury at Russia’s veto. Clinton called it a “travesty;” the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said she was “disgusted” at the vote, in a rare break with the usual diplomatic niceties.

William Hague’s verdict of a “doomed and murdering regime” caught the mood well.

Angry words are one thing, workable policies another. The Arab League will face pressure to come up with something. Nabil al-Arabi, its secretary-general, noted that despite Saturday’s double veto, “there is clear international support” for the league’s stance.

But its hawkish vanguard is losing patience. Qatar, the wealthy dynamo of regional diplomacy, is already rumoured to be arming the FSA with Saudi blessing.

Senator Joe Lieberman, the former US democratic presidential candidate, welcomed the idea too. Further militarisation could see Syria becoming a battleground in a proxy war between the Gulf Arabs and Iran, Assad’s only regional ally.

Many see parallels with Libya – though Syria’s opposition is fragmented and has no stronghold like Benghazi from which to fight the regime.

Another more remote possibility, some warn, is that an Arab “coalition of the willing” might intervene and seek a retroactive mandate from the UN in a replay of the Kosovo war in 1999. But Clinton’s call for “friends of democratic Syria to unite” was about helping the opposition politically and financially.

Could Russia yet surprise? Sergei Lavrov, its foreign minister, and Mikhail Fradkov, head of foreign intelligence, are due in Damascus tomorrow. Will they twist Assad’s arm to stop the killing and launch reforms or find a compliant Alawite general to take his place? Moscow’s model could be the deal that forced the departure of Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. “It’s a long shot,” said one Middle East veteran.

“The Arab League initiative was the Yemeni solution and the Russians shot it down.” – ( Guardianservice)