It is too late to hammer out a political solution for the 18-month-long Syrian crisis, which has mutated into an open-ended civil war.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, fighting for his survival, is unlikely to abandon the military option in return for a diplomatic deal that involves negotiations with the opposition. On the other hand, the Syrian National Council (SNC) is weak and recent shake-ups removed secular and nationalist elements in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood, which now has undisputed control.
Both the regime and the opposition appear to have crossed the point of no return, but neither has the capacity to achieve decisive victory on the ground.
The number of dead has passed the 20,000 mark and, according to eyewitness Dr Jacques Bérès, who recently returned from a two-week medical mission at a rebel-controlled hospital in Aleppo, “the number of dead is a far cry from what’s been announced”. He told Reuters that “you have to multiply by two to get the real figure”.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has warned of deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Syria. Turkey and Jordan, two countries hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrians who fled the mayhem, have voiced concern over their ability to receive additional refugees.
The United States and Russia remain divided on the Syrian issue, but even within the Western camp there are differences on how to proceed from here. A French suggestion that the SNC should proceed to form a provisional government was rebuffed by Washington.
There are growing concerns over the infiltration of the Free Syria Army (FSA) by hundreds, and maybe thousands, of foreign Islamist militants, especially in Aleppo, where a fierce battle to take over the city has been raging for weeks.
Few expect the special UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, to make a difference at this stage of the conflict. There are doubts over the SNC’s ability to control rebel fighters who ostensibly fight under the banner of the FSA. Some reports blamed FSA members, and foreign fighters, for atrocities committed in Aleppo and elsewhere against regime loyalists.
It is a bleak picture that marks Arab and international failure to find a solution that would stop the wanton destruction of Syria and the blood spilling of its citizens. Such paralysis will ensure that the civil war will go on unchecked for many months, but in the process, it presents more sinister scenarios for the future of this important regional country.
The sectarian nature of the Syrian society is becoming a major factor in the ongoing confrontation between the regime, with largely Alawite and Christian supporters, and the overwhelmingly Sunni opposition. Atrocities by regime soldiers and thugs have targeted mainly Sunni villages and neighbourhoods.
In the northwest, where Sunni and Alawite communities have lived in close proximity for centuries, most Sunni villages are now deserted as people fled to larger cities or towards the borders with Turkey.
News of massacres committed by the regular army has driven hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Sunnis, from their towns and villages. Even in Damascus, where the regime still has control over most areas, armed militias have appeared in Druze, Christian and Shiite neighbourhoods to collaborate with the army against rebel infiltration. But some of these “minority militias” have been accused of perpetrating sectarian crimes, including summary executions of members of others sects, particularly Sunnis. Similar militias have appeared in Homs, Hama and others.
As the conflict drags on, two things are likely to happen. One is a slow but deliberate process of ethnic and sectarian cleansing that will feature massive internal migrations by Alawites, Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Christians and Kurds (who are Sunnis and settle in the northeastern part of the country).
The second, and as a result, is the formation of sectarian pockets and enclaves, the most important of which will be an Alawite pocket in the northwestern part of the country including Latakia, Banyas and Tartous.
Eventually we could witness the demise of the Syrian state altogether and the appearance of ethnic and sectarian mini-states that could extend into Lebanon as well.
A spillover effect from Syria’s deconstruction will threaten the stability of Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and even Israel. It will be a major geopolitical tremor which leader of Lebanon’s Druze sect Walid Jumblatt alluded to recently in The Guardian: “What is left of the famous Sykes-Picot agreement is being changed.”
Foreign intervention is still possible in Syria. As Assad’s grip on power loosens, there will be need for the West to step in to carry out a two-pronged mission: establish a safe haven for refugees along the borders and secure chemical weapons locations. As such intersecting scenarios unfold, we will be looking at higher casualty figures, especially among civilians.
Analyst and Syria expert Patrick Seale recently wrote: “Disastrous as it is, the Syrian civil war is only a sub-plot in a far wider contest.”
He warned of an American-Israeli conspiracy to wage “shadow war” in the region.
“Arab states are apparently unaware that they are playing into the hands of Israeli and American hawks who dream of re-modeling the region in order to subject it to their will. This same neo-con ambition drove the US to invade and destroy Iraq in the hope of permanently enfeebling it.”
The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. The article was published in the Jordan Times on Sept. 12, 2012