Syria, an ever-boil­ing caul­dron

“Dark days lie ahead with the risk of ex­trem­ist el­e­ments and ex­ter­nal play­ers in­creas­ing their role in the con­flict sit­u­a­tion, mak­ing it even more in­tractable.”

The Pak Banker - - Front Page - Bhaskar Balakr­ish­nan

THE in­tractable, 19-month-long con­flict in Syria has so far caused around 36,000 deaths while some half mil­lion refugees have fled into neigh­bour­ing coun­tries. In ad­di­tion, there are some 1.5 mil­lion in­ter­nally dis­placed per­sons. The coun­try's his­toric cities have been dam­aged by bombs and ar­tillery shelling. Dark days lie ahead with the risk of ex­trem­ist el­e­ments and ex­ter­nal play­ers in­creas­ing their role in the con­flict sit­u­a­tion, mak­ing it even more in­tractable.

UN En­voy Lakhdar Brahimi, a sea­soned Al­ge­rian se­nior diplo­mat, had tried in vain to bro­ker a tem­po­rary truce dur­ing the Eid Al Adha fes­ti­val, as im­por­tant to Mus­lims as Christ­mas is to Chris­tians. But de­spite ini­tial hopes, the truce col­lapsed into con­flict.

Peace­mak­ing can only start when the par­ties re­alise that they can­not achieve their ob­jec­tives by con­tin­ued con­flict, are weak­ened to the point of mu­tual ex­haus­tion, and have more to lose by con­tin­ued con­flict.

Clearly this stage has not yet been reached, and peace­mak­ers will have to wait longer. Mean­while, the hu­man­i­tar­ian tragedy intensifies, and the task of post­con­flict re­build­ing and re­con­struc­tion grows big­ger.

The Syr­ian op­po­si­tion re­mains frag­mented and dis­united. The Turk­ish based Syr­ian Na­tional Coun­cil (SNC), the Free Syr­ian Army (FSA), and the Da­m­as­cus­based Na­tional Co­or­di­na­tion Com­mit­tee (NCC) have not de­vel­oped the de­gree of co­or­di­na­tion, let alone unity and shared goals that are es­sen­tial for bring­ing about a change in regime.

US Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton re­flected Western frus­tra­tion when she called for "re­build­ing" the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion. Be­hind this cry was the ap­pre­hen­sion that ex­trem­ist el­e­ments, such as Al Qaeda, could take ad­van­tage of the dis­unity and in­crease their foothold in Syria. The best hope for uni­fy­ing the op­po­si­tion re­mains the Syr­ian Na­tional Coun­cil, the most in­clu­sive and demo­cratic of all the groups. The re­cent SNC meet­ing at Doha sought to achieve this, but with lim­ited suc­cess.

Ef­forts should continue to im­prove co­or­di­na­tion be­tween the SNC and the FSA and bring the NCC into this struc­ture. This will re­quire pa­tient work by Western and Arab gov­ern­ments, and will open the way for a diplo­matic so­lu­tion to the con­flict at the right time. Cal­i­brated po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic sup­port, in­clud­ing armed ca­pa­bil­ity and lo­gis­tics, can help this process.

The UN re­mains dead­locked and un­able to ad­vance be­yond the plat­i­tude that a so­lu­tion has to be found peace­fully through a Syr­ian-led ef­fort.

But ex­ter­nal in­ter­ven­tion is al­ready a re­al­ity, with Iran pro­vid­ing mas­sive crit­i­cal sup­port to the regime, in­clud­ing mil­i­tary equip­ment, mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers, and train­ing to build up the re­pres­sive pri­vate Shab­biha mili­tia into a reg­u­lar armed force. Ira­nian in­ter­ven­tion in Syria and sup­port to the regime started well be­fore the present con­flict be­gan.

The Syr­ian con­flict to­day has drawn in ex­ter­nal play­ers, as would any pro­longed con­flict. The bor­der with Tur­key has be­come a zone of ten­sion with refugees cross­ing over. Tur­key-Syr­ian ten­sions are high with mil­i­tary build-up on the bor­der.

How­ever, Rus­sian pres­sure and US lack of sup­port have re­strained Tur­key. But its re­straint has lim­its and it is now seek­ing NATO sup­port for set­ting up Pa­triot mis­siles on its bor­der as a pre­lude to a no fly zone. Af­ter Obama's re-elec­tion, the US strat­egy for the con­flict is likely to be more ac­tive but short of mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion.

Le­banon has wit­nessed the as­sas­si­na­tion of its in­tel­li­gence chief, who had rolled up a pro-Syr­ian net­work in that coun­try.

Jor­dan has been af­fected by refugee in­flux and pres­sures to open a front for the op­po­si­tion. Is­rael is ner­vous about leak­age of Syr­ian stocks of chem­i­cal weapons into the hands of Hezbol­lah and Ha­mas.

Is­rael has al­ready re­acted to Syr­ian shelling and air­craft move­ments on the Golan heights, which is sup­posed to be de­mil­i­tarised.

For Iran, Syria re­mains a key strate­gic base from which to threaten Is­rael with drones and mis­siles, in case of hos­til­i­ties that seem just over the hori­zon.

Syria is now ex­pe­ri­enc­ing what hap­pened for so many years in Le­banon where Syria sought to gain a dom­i­nant role in its trou­bled wa­ters. Al Qaeda and ex­trem­ist groups can ex­ploit a pro­longed con­flict and weak­en­ing of state author­ity to build their base.

The ex­pe­ri­ence of Le­banon shows the dan­gers of a pro­longed con­flict and dis­in­te­gra­tion of a coun­try into war­lord-con­trolled zones, mak­ing it pos­si­ble for ter­ror­ists, or­gan­ised crime, and drug lords to flour­ish. The des­per­a­tion of the Syr­ian regime is ap­par­ent in its use of war­planes to bomb its own cities, an ac­tion that makes lit­tle mil­i­tary sense.

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