Diplomats try again for peace but on the ground in Syria it is now war.
As his helicopter gunships rained death from the skies and his artillery pounded villages with rebel sympathies, President Bashar al-Assad stated the obvious: Syria is at war.
“When one is in a state of war, all our policies and capabilities must be used to secure victory,” he told his cabinet, in the safety of his heavily guarded palace in the centre of his capital Damascus. It appeared to be an attempt to stiffen the resolve of his followers, most of who must now understand that the regime has decided to fight to the end, no matter how bloody or horrible that is. He pledged to eliminate terrorists, and rejected hopes of a peace plan, which he called a foreign effort to impose a solution on Syria.
It has been obvious for a long time that much of Syria is effectively in a state of civil war. But last week there was a dangerous sense of escalation, with much of the north and west of the country now clearly out of government hands and perhaps as many as 100 people being killed every day.
Fighting spread into the capital, with rebels attacking in the suburbs. They claimed to have formed a battalion only four miles from where Assad made his announcement. Until last month, Damascus had been almost untroubled by armed clashes.
The regime responded, as it has done elsewhere in Syria, with indiscriminate artillery barrages unleashed against civilian areas where gunners thought there may be rebels hiding. Dozens of men, women and children were reportedly killed or maimed on the outskirts of Damascus.
Almost since the beginning of the uprising in the spring of last year Mr Assad has insisted that he was facing a problem of criminal gangs, aided by home-grown and foreign-aided terrorists, so it was significant that he made an admission that Syria was facing not just a law and order problem, but a war.
He may have thought it would also blunt the effect of any diplomatic initiatives as foreign powers gather in Geneva on Saturday for another international meeting to discuss the Syria crisis. The main aim of the Western powers is now to somehow prise away Russia, Syria’s long-standing ally and Mr Assad’s crucial arms supplier.
Western diplomats have made rather optimistic claims that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is ready to cast Mr Assad adrift, or even assist in a plan to ease him out and replace his rule with a national unity government – the peace plan that he unsurprisingly rejects. But officially the Russians have remained loyal.
As the meeting in Geneva got underway on Saturday, there were hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said that the US and Russian positions were moving closer together after talks with his American counterpart Hillary Clinton.
“I think Russia now understands that it is backing a losing horse. But it is never easy to abandon a losing position,” said Joshua Landis, Director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “And there may be a lingering hope that Assad will find a way of getting the better of the rebels.”
Like other commentators he does not expect much to come of the diplomatic process. “It’s a way for leaders to look as if they are doing something,” he said. “But to be fair it is hard to figure out a soft landing for Syria. Everybody is playing for time. On the ground it looks as if there is going to be a lot of disorder and chaos. It is going to be grim for a long time.”
Another western expert on Syria, who did not want to be named, was equally pessimistic. “The meeting in Geneva is going nowhere. The situation is spiralling out of control and the time for diplomacy has sadly expired,” he said. Rebels are increasingly confident that Assad can be overthrown with the new weapons that are arriving in greater numbers from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries and are losing interest in negotiations.
Nor does the regime shows much interest in compromise. Syria looks increasingly divided and embittered as the bloodshed worsens. A hard core of perhaps 100,000 soldiers and intelligence men loyal to Mr Assad fear a terrible end if the regime falls, and they look as if they are ready to do anything to avoid that fate.
A long bloody civil war looms, with fears the kind of sectarian blood-letting that tore apart Syria’s western neighbour Lebanon in the 1980s, and its eastern neighbour Iraq in the past decade. Instead of hopes of peace plans there is now speculation that as the regime becomes more desperate it may bomb the cities, or that regime loyalists may rally in the fortress of the north-western mountains for a terrible last stand.
The West is showing little determination, except to stay out of the mess. After all, a combination of armed rebels and dreadful decision-making by Mr Assad are gradually doing the job of destroying the regime, and nobody sensible in Washington or anywhere else dreams of invasion or nation-building any more.
Rebels claim there is an increasing rate of army defections, and Turkey’s angry condemnation of Syria after one of its jets was shot down a week ago has put more pressure on the regime, especially after Turkish forces were moved up to the border. Shooting down the jet reminded western hawks that imposing a no-fly zone means overcoming Syria’s formidable air defences.
The economy, which has been bad for months, is getting much worse; prices of fuel and food are unaffordable in many areas and President Assad’s key big business supporters may be starting to wonder if it is time to get out.
“Some of the fighters have their backs to the wall and they are going to fight,” said Joshua Landis. “But I have heard recently that there is demoralisation among many of Assad’s top supporters, and even open criticism of his leadership. The upper ranks are starting to realise they are in a mortal struggle which they may not win.”
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