The Syrian crisis in recent weeks has moved one dangerous step closer to civil war. The ceasefire which Kofi Annan, the UN and Arab League envoy, proudly engineered on April 12 is now barely alive. The presence of some 200 UN monitors, due to be increased to 300 by the end of the month, has somewhat reduced the violence, but has by no means put an end to it.
While there are fewer largescale battles, such as the one which destroyed whole quarters of the central city of Homs in March, clashes continue daily right across the country. If the violence is unchecked, the battle for Homs — with its tit-for-tat massacres — could come to seem a mere foretaste of the horrors to come. Sectarian passions are being fuelled and, for the moment at least, neither side is ready to put up its guns.
On the contrary, rebel fighters, increasingly well armed and funded from abroad, and more than ever determined to topple President Bashar Al Assad, have launched what amounts to an urban guerrilla war. They reject any negotiation that might leave him in place. In recent weeks they have been joined by dozens, possibly hundreds, of Islamist extremists, flowing into Syria across the Lebanese, Iraqi and Jordanian borders.
Some of these extremists, apparently loosely linked to Al Qaida, are widely believed to have carried out the suicide bombings which have struck terror into the population. Of the 11 major incidents recorded so far, the two most lethal were in Damascus on May 10, which killed 55 people and wounded close to 400. The morale of the population has plummeted. No one is safe and nowhere is secure.
The violent emergence of the extremists is by no means to the benefit of the opposition since it lends credence to the regime’s argument that it is fighting “terrorist gangs”. It tends to tilt the ‘silent majority’, ever anxious for security, to the government’s side. It also scares off some of the opposition’s western backers.
The regime is evidently under great stress. It is finding it increasingly difficult to track down and destroy the swift-footed rebel groups, who carry out daring hit-and-run operations. For all its military superiority, Syria’s conventional army is not trained or equipped to fight a guerrilla war. Casualties among the military have risen, stoking a thirst for revenge. The hard men of the regime, who have borne the brunt of the fighting, see the situation as one of ‘kill or be killed’.
Since the army and security forces remain loyal, the regime seems in no immediate danger of being overthrown. The result is a bloody stalemate, punctuated by acts of extreme violence by the regime and its enemies. Each side knows that whoever wins the battle will give no quarter to the other.
Meanwhile, the fighting has spilled over to Lebanon, especially to the mainly Sunni town of Tripoli, close to the Syrian border, which has become something of a rear base for the armed Syrian opposition. Gun battles have raged between pro- and anti-Syrian factions, and Beirut itself has not been spared.
Merciless as they are, these local skirmishes are overshadowed by the regional and international struggle for control of Syria. Two contests stand out: one which pits Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies against Iran, and another which pits the US against Russia. A sub-theme is the tension between Iran and Turkey, the result of their alignment on opposite sides of the conflict: Iran is Syria’s main regional ally while Turkey is the leading external prop of the Syrian opposition, providing house-room to the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army and to large numbers of Syrian refugees.
American policy is showing alarming signs of incoherence. Washington supports the Annan peace plan while at the same time seeking to ensure its failure.
While Annan is striving to make the ceasefire hold as a necessary prelude to ‘Syrian-led’ negotiations, the US, under pressure from Israel and a pro-Israeli Congress, as well as from Republican hawks, is unashamedly seeking Al Assad’s ouster. The prime objective of US and Israeli policy is to isolate and weaken Iran and sever its ties to the Hezbollah. Israel would like to bring down the whole Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah ‘resistance axis’, which has emerged in recent years as the main obstacle to its regional dominance.
By a curious twist of fortune, in opposing the Syrian regime the US finds itself in the invidious position of being on the same side as Al Qaida.
The US is actively supporting the Syrian rebels, Islamists prominent among them, providing them with sophisticated communications equipment and intelligence, while pressing Qatar and Saudi Arabia to do more to help them.
In fact, the US seems to be coordinating the flow of funds and weapons to the rebel fighters. A Washington Post article on May 15 by Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly — based it would appear on an official leak — reported US officials as saying that “the United States and others are moving forward toward increased coordination of intelligence and arming for the rebel forces”.
Opposition figures were said to be in direct contact with US State Department officials “to designate worthy rebel recipient of arms and pinpoint locations for stockpiles”. But one cannot arm the rebels while calling for a ceasefire!
There are limits, however, to what the US is prepared to do to bring down the Syrian regime. It is not ready to commit its own forces — no US boots on the ground and no strike aircraft attacking Syrian targets — and it will not risk an open clash with Moscow, which could have damaging repercussions on American interests elsewhere.
The US is not the only country guilty of incoherence. It is surely not an Arab or a Muslim interest to deepen the centuries-old divide between Sunnis and Shiites. Only their common enemies benefit when they fight. Nor is it an Arab or a Muslim interest to make an enemy of Iran. As I have often argued in this column, the Gulf states would be wiser to keep clear of Israeli-Iranian or US-Iranian quarrels. Geography dictates that Iran and the Gulf states, facing each other across the narrow strip of water, share many strategic and commercial interests. They are made to be partners, not opponents.
Surely the tragic history of Iraq and Lebanon underlines the urgent necessity to prevent Syria’s descent into the abyss of a full-scale sectarian civil war, which could have disastrous consequences across the region. Already, the fabric of Syrian society is being torn apart. The conflict must be demilitarised; the Annan peace plan must be given a chance to succeed; and every effort must be made to resolve the Syrian conflict by negotiations before it is too late.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.