In Syria, balls are ‘in the air, but no juggler’
The international community is “completely blocked” in Syria, says former diplomat Yves Besson. In the meantime, rebels as well as the Syrian government are trying to consolidate their positions with the support of neighbouring countries.
Syria’s 28-month-old conflict began with peaceful protests that met a violent response from the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, gradually igniting an insurrection that has cost up to 100,000 lives.
Now, one of the scenarios established at the end of June by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank which focuses on the prevention and resolution of armed conflicts, is playing out.
In a report titled Syria’s Metastasising Conflicts, ICG said “a fourth option – in which allies give both sides enough to survive but not prevail – would perpetuate a proxy war with Syrians as primary victims. It is the present stage and the likeliest forecast for the foreseeable future”.
This view is shared by former Swiss ambassador and Middle East expert Yves Besson. He is still in touch with the region via the Swiss Association for Euro-Arab-Mediterranean Dialogue, of which he is co-founder.
swissinfo.ch: Is anything moving on the diplomatic front?
Yves Besson: The West isn’t intervening, apart from a bit of humanitarian action. Their diplomacy calling for the departure of Assad, failing which the West would deliver weapons to the rebels, never took off. Assad’s still in position and hardly any weapons made it to the rebels.
Until now, the policy of the United States in the region is badly defined or incoherent, as seen with the ousting of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi. Washington had supported him wholeheartedly, only to dump him after the military coup. This earned criticism for the US from all political sides in Egypt.
The international community and its institutions are therefore completely blocked. The only ones to intervene in Syria are Russia, Iran and China. [Russia and Iran] did this by supporting militarily [the Syrian capital] Damascus and by blocking Western initiatives at the UN Security Council.
The situation, at a glance
- An estimated 7.8 million Syrians need humanitarian aid, half of them children.
- 1.8 million Syrian refugees have fled to countries in the region; 6,000 leave Syria every day.
- Lebanon has seen a 460% increase in the number of Syrian refugees since the beginning of 2013. By the end of the year, there will be 1.2 million Syrians seeking refuge in Lebanon – a quarter of the Lebanese population.
swissinfo.ch: What are the consequences of this Western failure?
Y.B.: The regional actors are free to intervene on the ground, whereas previously, they followed the line imposed by the leading powers.
As for the Sunnis, Qatar’s regional policy of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood has largely failed – the latest episode being the military coup against Mursi. Qatar, where the former emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani has just abdicated in favour of his son, Sheikh Tamim, is aligning in part with the other Gulf monarchies, dominated by Saudi Arabia.
The new leader of the Syrian opposition, president of the National Syrian Coalition Ahmad Jarba, has been installed by the Saudis. He is the leader of the Shammar tribe, which has a presence in northern Saudi Arabia, southern Iraq and southern Syria – this has played a role from the moment when the international community was paralysed.
So within Syria there’s a Saudi-Iranian conflict, which can only end in a draw with appalling human consequences. Each side is trying to wear out the other. That’s how the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) finished – exhausted, the two sides signed an agreement.
Plus, don’t forget that this war is also a class conflict. A sizeable chunk of the Syrian middle class (Alawite, Sunni and Christian) continue to support Assad.
swissinfo.ch: Lebanon is feeling the full force of the consequences of its neighbour’s war. Does it also risk toppling over?
Y.B.: Lebanon is going through a government crisis with an executive that is running business. The political class is playing party politics while the Lebanese ship is on the verge of sinking. Lebanon is inundated with Syrian refugees. Lebanon’s borders are like sieves – apart from the one with Israel.
That said, the Lebanese state is still going. I don’t see Lebanon being dragged into the war because the country’s political forces know very well not to overdo it. [The Shi’a group] Hezbollah, a great supporter of Damascus, felt that by playing a central role in the taking of the Syrian city of Al-Qusayr, it had gone too far. Since then, it has reduced somewhat its involvement with Damascus – it doesn’t want to come across as anti-Lebanon, which would go against the fundamental interests of Lebanon.
swissinfo.ch: If the front lines stabilise, are we heading towards a partition of Syria?
Y.B.: I don’t think so. But for lasting stability in the region, a global regional agreement is necessary, which would come about only with a large international conference, like Versailles (1919-20), which divided the Middle East along the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.
Today, all the balls are once again in the air, but there isn’t a juggler. The West wanted to redraw the geopolitical map of the region, but Iran isn’t prepared to let go of its gain in Mesopotamia following the US intervention in Iraq.
The result is that this war is in the process of escaping from the Syrians themselves, with the increasingly marked intervention of Jihadist strangers.
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