Bloody politics on Syria

If Israel is perceived to be in danger by the spillover of the Syrian conflict, Washington will go to the aid of the anti-Syrian regime forces

The two-year-long civil war and bloodshed in Syria is reaching tipping point as more than 80,000 people are dead while a million and a half Syrians have sought shelter in neighbouring countries, apart from the millions of internally displaced.

The border town of Qusair is now the focus of fighting between the forces of the besieged Assad regime and groups of his opponents.
The dilemma for the major Western powers, particularly the United States, is acute because after two bloody misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is little appetite for direct military intervention even as events are spinning out of control. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been arming the divided Opposition, with the US’ Central Intelligence Agency trying to exercise some control over who gets the arms. But the rebels’ arms are no match for the strong Syrian armed forces symbolically buttressed by Russia’s agreement to supply the S300 missile batteries.
Turkey, the strongest proponent of a muscular policy against the Assad regime, is beset with internal problems, with two unwelcome developments for the hitherto seemingly impregnable Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A series of blasts in a Turkish border town was blamed by residents on the Turkish government’s active anti-Assad policies, and, more ominously, a movement against the plan to build a shopping complex in Taksim Square in Istanbul leading to police overreaction has led to countrywide protests against the government’s new restrictive policies in relation to such issues as purchase of alcohol and showing affection in public.
Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is rooted in Islam, and although favoured by the bulk of the new middle class in Anatolia with conservative mores, is deeply offensive to the considerable liberal and secular constituency in Turkey. The AKP has had a spectacular run of successes in the polls and it is an open secret that Mr Erdogan is planning to change the Constitution so that he can surmount the limit of his office by becoming executive President.
Britain and France won a symbolic victory recently by getting the European Union to drop the embargo against arming the Syrian rebels. But the Western dilemma has become more, rather than less, acute because the Assad regime, helped by the Hezbollah movement in neighbouring Lebanon, has gained new strength in fighting the rebels, some of whom are now suggesting that without Western military support, their cause would be lost. Lebanon, a delicate construct of confessional faiths, has already thought it wise to postpone its general election by more than a year.
Some 1.5 million Syrian refugees are already causing problems for the neighbouring countries hosting them and, despite international assistance, are struggling to look after them. In a sense, the Syrian conflict has already spilled over to neighbouring countries. The Obama administration is still playing a cautious game because it is acutely aware of the wages of Iraq and Afghanistan and the only factor that could tilt Washington in favour of intervention is Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been less vocal in threatening to bomb Iran to stop its nuclear programme, but a succession of US administrations, both Democrats and Republicans, have traditionally courted Arab hatred by their total support to Israel. If Israel is perceived to be in danger by the spillover of the Syrian conflict, Washington will go to the aid of the anti-Syrian regime forces.
Against this backdrop, the talks scheduled in Geneva between the Assad regime and its supporters under joint US-Russian auspices seem to be a mere footnote. Russia has been siding with the Assad regime and Iran in the dangerous game that is played out in Syria. President Bashar Assad has lasted longer than anyone expected after the beginning of a revolt that started over two years ago. But the unspoken assumption on almost all sides is that he will have to go to bring peace to his troubled country. The longer the process lasts, the greater will be the suffering and bloodshed.
There are no simple answers because Syria is a pivotal state with a chequerboard of ethnicities and religions. A possible break-up would have a cataclysmic effect on its neighbours. The Assad regime is making great play on the belief that many of its opponents in the civil war are religious extremists, some affiliated to Al Qaeda. This is true up to a point, but to make such a claim is to belittle the nature of the revolt that has led to the civil war and the minority nature of the Alawite regime.
How then can events be brought to a stage in which political dialogue, rather than force, will determine the outcome? The projected peace talks in Geneva are one answer, but both the US and Russia will have to invest a great deal of capital to make it the beginning of a successful process. Russia has its own geopolitical reasons for supporting President Assad, but there will come a point when possible chaos in the region will outweigh its other interests.
As for the US, the initial enthusiasm President Barack Obama created on taking office has long faded as he has amply proved that he is essentially a conventional head of state guided by his national interests without much appetite for courting domestic controversy. He will not be able to live down the abject manner in which he surrendered to Mr Netanyahu on the first moves he made to stop illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Perhaps being his country’s first black President is a burden that is inhibiting him in charting a new, bold course in redeeming America’s name and honour.
The battle for Qusair has brought out an urgent appeal from the International Red Cross for the fighting to stop so that its teams can go into the town to aid the thousands of civilians who need urgent food and medical assistance. The tragedy is that many of the outside countries and elements have their own fish to fry while the bloodletting continues without a pause.

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