As 2013 dawns, Syria is descending into hell. At least 53,000 people have been killed while at least

500,000 more have been forced to flee their homes.

On Sunday in Cairo, the UN Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, drew a grim portrait Syria’s future in the absence of a political solution. Brahimi predicts a state carved up by warlords and a death toll that would rapidly surge, while conceding that there was little sign that the antagonists intended to negotiate a settlement.

At a news conference in Cairo, Brahimi said the violence, which has already killed tens of thousands of people, could claim 100,000 lives over the next year.

Bleak future

“People are talking about a divided Syria being split into a number of small states like Yugoslavia,” he said. “This is not what is going to happen. What will happen is Somalisation — warlords,” Brahimi said, according to a transcript of his remarks.

Without a peace deal, he added, Syria would be “transformed into hell.”

Brahimi’s comments reflected a deepening pessimism after his apparently unsuccessful attempt over the past week to mediate the crisis by shuttling between opposition figures and the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad.

Reconciliation project

“The government is working to support the national reconciliation project and will respond to any regional or international initiative that would solve the current crisis through dialogue and peaceful means and prevent foreign intervention in Syria’s internal affairs,” Prime Minister Wael Al Halaqi told parliament yesterday in response to Brahimi’s efforts.

But in another sign of the impasse, the leader of a large opposition coalition all but rebuffed an invitation by Russia to discuss solutions to the crisis.

Tragic conditions

Both sides of the divide are apparently determined to fight it off, with each side claiming military advances on the ground.

The media seem to focus on the fighting around the capital Damascus and main cities such as Aleppo and Homs.

But the real story, the untold one, is the tragic conditions of refugee camps on the country’s borders with Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

With the winter temperatures descending to sub- zero during most nights, thousands of refugees, mainly children, women and old people, are at risk of death.

The tragic story of Syria will remain the top story to follow in 2013. Many hope a peaceful solution will end the conflict in the Arab country, known as the heartland of Arab nationalism. But it is unlikely the Barhimi efforts will bring about such an end any time soon.

— Compiled from Agencies



Scenario 1: Al Assad leaves

Since the conflict began in March, 2011, President Bashar Al Assad has always said he won’t leave Syria — and his use of his Alawite-controlled military and security services show he’s true to his word.

There is little chance that he leave Syria now even as events on the ground unfold and Russia seems to have accepted that the Al Assad’s regime’s days are numbered.

The United Nations’ top envoy for the Syrian crisis, Lakhdar Brahimi, met with Al Assad in the presidential palace in Damacus last Monday in an urgent effort to resolve the nearly two-year-old conflict.

But Al Assad’s psychology, shaped by a strong sense of mission inherited from his iron-fisted father and predecessor, Hafez Al Assad; his closest advisers, whom supporters describe as a hard-line politburo of his father’s grey-haired security men; and Al Assad’s assessment, known only to himself, about what awaits him if he stays — victory, or death at the hands of his people.

East of the palace lies the airport and a possible dash to exile, a route that some say Al Assad’s mother and wife may have already taken. But the way is blocked, not just by bands of rebels, but by a belief that supporters say Al Assad shares with his advisers that fleeing would betray both his country and his father’s legacy.

Or he can head north to the coastal mountain heartland of his minority Alawite sect, ceding the rest of the country to the uprising led by the Sunni Muslim majority. That would mean a dramatic comedown: reverting to the smaller stature of his grandfather, a tribal leader of a marginalised minority concerned mainly with its own survival.

Buit that leaves Syria in the control of Free Syrians, united now only by their hatred of the regime, hence Brahimi warning of a Somalia-type situation.

Scenario 2: Al Assad stays and steps aside

After meeting with President Basdhar Al Assad last week, Brahimi was close-mouthed about the details of his meeting, but has warned in recent weeks that without a political solution, Syria faces the collapse of the state and years of civil war that could dwarf the destruction already caused by the conflict that has taken more than 45,000 lives.

A Damascus-based diplomat said that Al Assad, despite official denials, was “totally aware” that he must leave and was “looking for a way out,” though the timetable is unclear.

“More importantly,” said the diplomat, who is currently outside Syria but whose responsibilities include the country, “powerful people in the upper circle of the ruling elite in Damascus are feeling that an exit must be found.”

Turkish officials say that in frequent talks during the revolt’s first months, Al Assad listened calmly to their criticisms, took personal responsibility for the government’s actions and promised to seek resolution.

“Either he is a professional liar or he can’t deliver on what he promises,” said a senior Turkish official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

If there ever existed moderates in the government who might cajole Al Assad to hand power to a successor who could preserve the Syrian state, that option now appears increasingly remote.

“So much blood has been shed, and it’s impossible to do this,” one Russian analyst said.

In Al Assad’s circle, the one person who might persuade him to leave is his wife, Asma, but she has taken little role in the crisis. and she may already be outside Syria.

The rebels leadership, however, say there can be no peace as long as Al Assad is in Syria, in power — or alive.

Scenario 3: Al Assad fights to the bitter end

“What is happening in Syria is bad, very, very bad,” said Lakhdar Brahimi, who is charged by the United Nations and the Arab League with seeking a peaceful end to 21 months of hostilities that have killed 45,000 Syrians.

“It is also escalating. If we have 50,000 killed in almost two years and the war stays another year, we will not have 25,000 more, we will have 100,000 more killed.”

The fighting is becoming more bitter and more retributive.

Opposition groups that monitor the death toll said as many as 400 people — more than double the typical daily death toll — were killed on Saturday. About half of them were civilians slain in an alleged mass killing carried out by government troops at a petrochemical university in central Syria, opposition groups reported.

The civil war in Syria is being fought with increasing ferocity. Anti-government rebels control large swaths of the country, particularly in northern Syria. The government has sent warplanes to bomb villages and cities where rebels have made gains, including parts of the capital, Damascus. Rebels have mounted several offensives to consolidate their gains, and the Syrian military has been fighting to retake lost ground.

Government forces have regained control of Deir Baalba, a suburb of the central city of Homs, after having surrounded the rebel-held town about a month ago. Opposition groups, whose reports were murky and could not be independently verified, said government forces committed a massacre in the battle for the town.

If Al Assad has everything to lose, he may very well turn to chemical weapons.

Al Assad is following his father’s path. To put down an Islamist revolt in the 1980s, Hafez Al Assad bulldozed entire neighbourhoods and killed at least 10,000 people.

In a government that has become even more secretive, it is impossible to know exactly how Al Assad makes his decisions. Some people say he wanted to reform but his father’s generals and intelligence officials, along with his mother, convinced him that reforms would bring their downfall.

“There are two Bashar Al Assads,” said Jurgen Todenhofer, a German journalist who interviewed him in July. One is a quiet man “who doesn’t like his job” and wants a way out, he said; the other wants to show his family and the world, “I’m not a softy.”