Resolving the Syrian conflict

Mon, Feb 4, 2013, 00:00

News that the leader of the Syrian opposition coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, has met Russian and Iranian ministers and told them he is willing to engage with the Assad regime if it releases 160,000 political prisoners is a welcome indication that international action to bring the grisly fighting to an end can at last produce results. Until now the opposition has insisted that Assad should step down first, echoing its international supporters, which Russia and Iran reject. While this dreadful conflict must be settled internally, regional and world powers also have a definite role to play.

Syria’s internal war contains so many elements of those wider power struggles and socio-cultural cleavages that it is validly seen as a proxy confrontation to which neighbouring states are necessarily part of the solution. Turkish, Saudi Arabian, Qatari, Lebanese and Iranian involvements are similarly motivated by conflicting political, religious, economic and security concerns. Russian support for the Assad regime is now heavily qualified by embarrassment at its excesses and a realisation that they may have backed a loser.

United States and European calls for stronger United Nations sanctions and political engagement have stopped short of arming the opposition for fear of pushing Syrians to the brink of a sectarian and ideological war that would fragment Syrian society and destabilise the entire region. Israel’s air raids on Syrian military targets last week highlight these dangers.

Multilateral negotiations rather than direct international military intervention are the best hope of securing a successor state satisfactory to most Syrians. There is now a real opportunity to pursue them, using the diplomatic resources available to the UN-Arab League mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi.

His sense of urgency was reinforced by last week’s atrocities in Aleppo after which he told the Security Council that the Syrian civil war has reached “unprecedented levels of horror”.

The sheer exhaustion of the conflict and the absence of evidence that either side is near a definite victory reinforce his case.

Increased international funding for the hundreds of thousands of refugees from the fighting now crowding camps in Turkey and Jordan is a hopeful sign of a similar willingness to respond to Mr Brahimi’s pleas for greater diplomatic activism in pursuit of a settlement. It must contain provisions for a ceasefire, direct negotiations and a political transition under the rule of law based on democratic consent.

If the entire region is not to be further destabilised these tasks demand a huge international effort as well as a strong commitment by Syrians to reconciliation.

Finding such solutions will certainly be costly, but as always with such deep-seated conflicts that has to be set against the even greater cost of failure.

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