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Regional players decide Syria’s destiny

The Syrian army is using heavy weapons to crack down on the revolt Timo Vogt/Bildrand

Opposing forces in the Middle East are interfering more and more in the Syrian crisis, just as they did in Lebanon 30 years ago. The international community remains divided over how to intervene and stop the conflict.

The Houla massacre near Homs has made it all too clear that, despite President Bashar al-Assad’s denials, the regime and its militia are largely responsible for the violence in Syria as it attempts to quell a popular uprising and eliminate a poorly-armed opposition.

In a televised speech to parliament on Sunday, Assad denied that his government had anything to do with the massacre and said his country was facing a “real war”, blaming foreign-backed “terrorists and extremists” for the bloodshed.

Foreign influences are certainly playing a role, if not that one claimed by Assad. Other countries in the region are interfering in the bloody conflict according to Yves Besson, a former Swiss diplomat and Middle East specialist.

Besson points to the similarities between the 15-year Lebanese civil war that ended in 1990 and the one developing in Syria. “Lebanon was a battlefield for an inter-Arab conflict and Syria is likewise becoming the theatre of a broader regional game.”

“Many signs indicate that the radical Islamists secretly backed by Saudi Arabia are looking for confrontation, for civil war. Facing them in Syria are Iran’s Guardians of the Revolution, who are using Iraq as a support base.”

The backdrop of the Syrian crisis is a power struggle with Iran, Syria and their Lebanese ally Hezbollah on one side and the Gulf kingdoms, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, on the other.

Sunni vs Shiite

“Many observers refuse to recognise the importance of the religious dimension in these tensions,” says Besson. “The opposition between Shiites and Sunnis did not disappear with the popular uprisings in the Arab world, even if it remained out of view. The repression of the Shiite majority revolt in Bahrain is very clear in this regard.” 

For many observers, the ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq by the United States and its allies boosted the rising power of neighbouring Shiite Iran, reigniting the fears of the Sunni royal families of the Middle East. These tensions have become worse with Iran’s attempts to develop a nuclear weapons programme.

The future of the Assad regime – centred on the Shiite Alawite community – will therefore have an impact on the regional balance between Shiites and Sunnis.

Besson points out that most of the towns rebelling and violently crushed by Damascus have mostly Sunni residents.

“The minorities in Syria have everything to fear from this confrontation between Shiites and Sunnis. The Armenians in the north, for example, are very frightened of being forced into exile.”

According to Besson, the most exposed are the Christians, protected by the Assad regime, but deprived of external support. Damascus was also a safe haven for Iraqi Christians after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Military option?

One option discussed in recent days is an international military intervention against the Assad regime. But it carries the risk of dragging the whole region into a spiral of violence with unforeseeable consequences believes Marcelo Kohen of Geneva’s Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

“Faced with the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime, it’s very easy to say – public opinion is ready for it – let’s use force. But we have to think of the consequences, whether it’s direct intervention or military aid to the rebels.”

“Since the end of the Cold War, a culture of force has taken hold on an international level. It has been established in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, that the use of force does not solve all problems,” Kohen told

Those in favour of military intervention invoke the “responsibility to protect”, a principle adopted by the United Nations in 2005 to allow the international community to intervene in cases of genocide or crimes against humanity.

“The responsibility to protect sparked inordinate hope,” Kohen explains. “However the principle did not add new elements to the use of force envisaged by the United Nations Charter.”

Which leaves the diplomatic option and the six-point peace plan of former UN secretary general Kofi Annan as the only alternatives. Annan’s initiative has been dismissed by a number of observers due to Damascus’ unwillingness to respect it.   

For Besson however, it has the merit of existing.

“Diplomatically, politically it’s useful. It is the only concession made by the Assad regime, even if it knew very well it had the means to render it inoperable,” he said. “The international community is not going to put an end to it, even if no one has any illusions about its efficacy. Because around this plan, it is possible to build something else.”

Moscow rules

Kohen adds that the crisis could also allow the international community to find other ways of ending civil conflicts other than by force.

“The tools at the disposal of the United Nations – sanctions, observer missions, international justice – are being applied. It is too soon to evaluate them. The international community has to learn how to use these combined tools. The hope is to get more results at a lower cost, including human lives and destruction, than with the use of force.”

The position of Russia – one of the Syrian regime’s strategic allies – will decide the outcome, according to Besson.

“Moscow is the key, nowhere else. That’s what Washington refuses to recognise. All this deployment of humanitarian compassion is masking a perfectly cynical power struggle between the West, Russia and China.”

The Syrian revolt began in March 20011 with mostly peaceful protests, but a ferocious government crackdown led many in the opposition to take up arms. The conflict has since morphed into an armed insurgency.

Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, still has a firm grip on power in Syria some 15 months into a revolt that has torn at the country’s fabric and threatened to undermine stability in the Middle East.

Activists say as many as 13,000 people have died in the violence. One year after the revolt began, the UN put the toll at 9,000, but hundreds more have died since.

A cease-fire plan brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan is violated by both sides every day.

Fears also have risen that the violence could spread and provoke a regional conflagration.

The Swiss government froze in the past few weeks SFr20 million ($20.8 million) in assets belonging to members of the Assad entourage.

Syrian assets worth around SFr70 million are now blocked in Swiss accounts.

The government implemented its first sanctions against Assad, members of his family, Syrian ministers and businessmen in May last year.

The list of sanctions has since received a number of additional measures. Twelve names are included on the list.

On May 29, Switzerland declared the Syrian ambassador to Switzerland “persona non grata” in move coordinated with several western countries who expelled Syrian ambassadors in response to the massacre at Houla.

On Tuesday, Syria responded in kind, declaring the Swiss ambassador to Syria “persona non grata” along with the ambassadors of several other countries.

Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter met UN peace envoy Kofi Annan in Geneva on Tuesday to express Switzerland’s support for his peace plan. 

Burkhalter insisted on the defence of human rights and fight against impunity, his spokesman told the Swiss News Agency.

(Adapted from French by Clare O’Dea)

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