Syria risks civil war |
Arab News - 07 June, 2012
With the Annan peace plan at stalemate, a badly-fragmented opposition and fierce resistance from the regime, Syria risks descending into a long and bloody civil war, analysts say.
As international powers grapple for a solution to end the conflict, experts believe a way needs to be found to tip the scales in favor of the 15-month rebellion seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"The regime is doing its absolute best right now to create a climate of civil war. That is clear," Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, told AFP.
"The longer the situation goes on, I believe, Syria will be facing more of a sectarian problem than it has," he said. "I think you're going to find there'll be increasingly bloody episodes because the diplomacy has not managed to keep up with the situation on the ground." US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Wednesday in Istanbul with her British, French, Turkish and some Arab counterparts, amid efforts to shore up the peace plan drawn up by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.
But many remain skeptical that the six-point plan setting out a cease-fire can be salvaged, especially after tragedies like the massacre in Houla last month in which 108 civilians, many of them women and children, were killed.
"We are kidding ourselves if we act as if this peace plan is bringing peace... It is kind of like Tinker Bell if we all say that we believe in it then it will happen," Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP. Residents in Houla blamed the massacre on residents from the neighboring Alawite villages — the same sect as the Assad family which has ruled the Sunni majority nation with an iron fist for over four decades.
Fears are also growing the conflict, in which rights groups say some 13,500 Syrians have already died, is increasingly turning into a proxy war between the West and its Arab allies one one side, and Russia, China and Iran on the other. "There's been a privatization" of the conflict, said Shaikh, "meaning, different groups from the outside have been supporting different groups on the inside... And this is the great danger now." Even though Washington has been clear that so far it is only providing non-lethal support to rebel groups, such as communications equipment, there are growing calls for a greater US involvement.
Some Republicans have called for the United States to arm the rebels, but there is little appetite to enter another Middle Eastern conflict following the Iraq war, and as US forces leave Afghanistan.
"There is a leadership vacuum," said Abrams, who has argued that greater US involvement in Syria is in its national strategic interest as a collapse of the Assad regime would by extension prove a blow to its ally, Iran.
"It is the strategic relationship between Tehran and the Assad regime that makes it possible for Iran to undermine Israel's security," argued former assistant secretary of state, James Rubin, in Foreign Policy magazine.
"The collapse of the Assad regime would sunder this dangerous alliance," he added, saying Washington should step up to help regional allies organize and train the ramshackle Syrian rebel forces. Putting together some kind of coalition air support would also help support the rebels, while keeping US boots off the ground, Rubin said.
Part of the difficulty facing Washington and the international community is the fragmented nature of the opposition, with the Free Syrian Army fighting on the ground and the Syrian National Council trying to fill the political void.
As the conflict that began in March 2011 drags on, an increasing number of militias have sprung up the towns and cities, with one expert saying there could be 50 or 60 different groups.
"Washington needs interlocutors," Joshua Landis, director for the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told AFP, arguing that the United States did not want to caught out supporting the wrong group.
Washington was already "off-shoring" the conflict to regional allies such as Saudi Arabia who were funneling arms to the rebels, he said, "so at least when the car bomb goes off in Damascus it won't have 'Made in America on it.'
"Everybody in Washington wants regime change on the cheap. They want to bomb without spending any money and without putting any American boots on the ground, they want another Libya. The trouble is Syria is not Libya."
One possible way forward, backed by Russia, is a plan based on the model in Yemen, in which Assad's inner circle would help lead a transition. But that would require a cohesive opposition ready to sit down with the Assad regime. "There will be a considerable amount of pressure put on some of these opposition groups I would have thought to get them to engage in what is in effect a negotiation with the government," said Shaikh.