Smoke rises from the Al Qusoor district of Homs early this month. More than 300 Syrian civilians have been mowed down since the six-point truce, ironically approved by Damascus, came into effect on April 12. Image Credit: Reuters

Beirut The handful of UN observers who are currently in Syria apparently agreed to stay in their hotel rooms on Fridays — the mandatory day of protest during the past year — which clearly highlighted what many feared when Kofi Annan, the affable former UN secretary-general, negotiated a toothless ceasefire.

Over 300 Syrian civilians have been mowed down since the six-point truce, ironically approved by Damascus, came into effect on April 12.

Regrettably, despite these violations, Annan has voiced few objections, while Nabeel Al Arabi, the League of Arab States (LAS) Secretary-General, has called for a political process to resolve the crisis.

In yet another typical declaration that uttered words but said little, Al Arabi sought "a political solution [which] cannot be considered separately from the goal of achieving a ceasefire".

For its part, the European Union has imposed an across-the-board ban on the sale of luxury goods, ostensibly to force Syria's hand and make it comply with the Annan Plan.

Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for Catherine Ashton, European Union foreign policy chief, innocently claimed that the EU was "really trying to make sure the sanctions target the regime", unaware that luxury goods are freely available in nearby Lebanon.

US at its wits' end

Even the Obama administration, whose search for a more effective response to the killings in Syria was etched in the American president's oft-repeated declarations on President Bashar Al Assad to step down, proved to be oblivious on what to do next.

An alleged focus on technology transfers to Syriatel, the Syrian communications company, was ostensibly meant to stop the killings, although this is optimistic at best. Ironically, rumours have circulated that Washington and, perhaps, several GCC states are opening up channels of communication with Al Assad, realising he is not going anywhere.

Under the circumstances, and now that the Annan ceasefire has proved its inefficacy, is Syria poised on a military solution?

In the ‘Game of Nations', back-channel communications seldom end, even among parties engaged in open hostilities. Still, it was difficult to see how Western powers can reconcile themselves with Al Assad, for doing so will significantly erode their already tainted records.

Nevertheless, because several Western leaders were persuaded that Damascus enjoyed a firm hold on power, the political consensus that was reached months ago was that nothing short of an outside military strike could dislodge the Baath regime.

It remains to be determined, however, whether Nato or the LAS — perhaps in a combined initiative — are likely to get involved militarily without the United States and Turkey.

Serious challenges

It is critical to note that Washington and Ankara confronted serious political challenges at home that, at least partially, explained their reticence to act.

In fact, the Obama administration is not anxious to start another war, especially in an election year, and Turkey confronted two serious challenges that curtailed its options.

Faced with a severe economic challenge at home now that Turkey's Syrian corridor to the Gulf States was curtailed, Ankara sought to activate the alternative Iraqi route to market its goods, and improve local conditions. To date, this outlet has produced negligible benefits, especially since Baghdad was on strict Iranian orders not to facilitate this Turkish initiative.

Moreover, both Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmad Daoudoglu backed off from talk of creating buffer zones along the Syrian border, ostensibly because they fear awakening the lingering Kurdish question.

To be sure, this is a double-edged sword that has hung like a Damocles sword over Erdogan's neck, but Turkey would have been in no position to influence the Syrian crisis if it had opted to neutralise rebellious Syrian Kurds.

Furthermore, Ankara is anxious to avoid any military action that is not sanctioned by Nato or the UN, for fear that any unilateral steps might provoke Russian and Chinese anger.

Equally important has been the expected Iranian hostility under such a scenario, even if Erdogan affirmed the "legitimate demands of the Syrian people [that] must be met, right here, right now".

Criticising the UN Security Council, Erdogan said: "[The] Security Council that has failed to say enough to a regime that has massacred innocent civilians, shelled cities and resorted to brutal violence [and was] clearly incapable of preserving international peace and security." He, however, rejected military intervention without UN or Nato backing.

Notwithstanding these concerns, and because the Annan Plan is already history, a potential Nato operation, probably with LAS and Organisation of Islamic Conference blessing and/or backing, should not be ruled out. This would not replicate the early 2011 Libya model but, instead, resemble the 1994 Bosnia example.

Not surprisingly, reports that commando troops from Europe and the United States were probably on the ground, have highlighted the direction that such developments might follow.

Rather than witness significant aerial bombardments, the more likely occurrences will focus on training Free Syria Army (FSA) operatives, especially in terms of the latter's abilities to target the regime's 8,000-plus tanks now deployed throughout the country.

Naturally, such actions required funding and at least two Arab countries — Saudi Arabia and Qatar — have pledged significant contributions to bankroll opposition fighters.

Elements not in place

Inasmuch as militancy relied on force rather than diplomatic resolutions, it is critical to assess whether FSA fighters and Syrian National Council (SNC) members can deliver. Indeed, and short of a sanctioned foreign military intervention, Syria is likely to experience a sustained low-intensity conflict precisely because so many elements are not in place.

Among these are the many logistical quirks regarding Saudi and Qatari military donations. Once resolved, such weapons could transform the poorly armed and disorganised rebel forces into a legitimate army, and add confidence among nationalist troops.

Regrettably, such efforts surely mean sustained fighting, which must be added to ongoing sectarian divisions looming in Syria. Nor surprisingly, Damascus would not flinch as it rejected any calls on Al Assad to step down, which nearly guaranteed a long-term civil war with rebels fighters armed from the outside.

Under the circumstances, few ought to be surprised when the current ban on lethal aid is finally lifted, and serious weapons reach the FSA.