international analysis and commentary

Tracking the Syrian crisis: violent regime, divided opposition, worried minorities

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The Syrian crisis is into its second year without any reasonable solution in sight. The country has already entered into a period of severe bloodshed, devastation and repeated massacres in the context of clashes between the regime and the opposition. The latter’s armed rebel groups are becoming more powerful, receiving money, training and support from various Western and Arab countries. As for the Syrian regime, although it has started to slide down the steep slope of decline, it is still battling, killing innocent civilians and claiming that it is protecting the country from the threat of terrorists.

A major obstacle that is hindering the success of the uprising in Syria is the division within the opposition. There is neither a clear transition plan nor a credible political strategy that is approved and agreed on by all opposition factions. Minorities in Syria fear their post-Assad future, as they feel (to a certain extent) protected by the current regime. The opposition has failed so far to convince these people that it is capable of offering them a reliable alternative. There has been no clearcommitment to democracy, rule of law, human rights and freedom of opinion, nor any substantive plan for power-sharing – an indispensable step in the difficult transition phase that may lie ahead.

In the short term, there must be a direct dialogue between the regime and the opposition, based on practical goals.

Throughout the past months, numerous attempts were made by external actors to resolve the crisis, but tracing these efforts only confirms the many obstacles to be overcome.

First, there was the Arab League peace plan in which 67 observers were sent to Syria at the end of December 2011 in order to monitor (and hopefully halt) the crackdown on protestors. One month later, the Arab League announced an indefinite suspension of its mission given the level of violence. The Arab League asked the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution, based on its action plan, including a call for Assad to step down. However, on February 4, 2012, the resolution was vetoed by China and Russia, with Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov arguing that it made too few demands of the anti-government armed groups and could prejudge the outcome of a dialogue among political forces in the country.

The next step was the Annan initiative, brought to the table by Joint Special Envoy for the United Nations and the Arab League, Kofi Annan, in February 2012. It envisaged a transitional government whose participants would be determined by Syrians, and called on the Syrian government forces and the rebels to commit to a ceasefire starting on April 12, 2012. But it took the ceasefire only two months to collapse as the Free Syrian Army began nationwide offenses against regime troops. Subsequently President al Assad (in a speech on June 1, 2012) vowed to crush the anti-regime uprising.

The United Nations mission was suspended on June 16, 2012 due to the escalation of violence in the country, where UN patrols have been regularly obstructed and in some cases deliberately targeted. Annan expressed extreme frustration, and tried and failed to engage the Syrian regime’s allies (Russia and Iran) in the effort to convince Assad to enter into meaningful negotiations.

Meanwhile, the “Friends of Syria” conferences, held on February 22 and April 1, aimed to find a solution away from the UN Security Council, also failed to provide a roadmap for the crisis . Rather than bridging the gap in the already-fragmented Syrian opposition, the conferences only sharpened differences between the Syrian National Council and the so called Coordination Committees.

Despite all the failed attempts in the past period to resolve the crisis, efforts continue by the international community to find a negotiated solution. The latest international meeting was on July 1 in Geneva and resulted in an agreement on a basic transition plan, where the current Syrian government and opposition figures could join together to form a new national unity government. The meeting, however, left unanswered the central question of whether and how Bashar al Assad would step down. The proposal was also received with great scepticism by opposition groups, who described it as an ambiguous compromise which would give the regime another chance to buy time. 

Ultimately, the key reason for the international community to keep doing its best is that the conflict threatens to spill out across the Syrian borders, possibly leading to chaotic effects on the whole region.