As Syrians Freeze, Diplomacy Is at a Standstill

Meanwhile, the political opposition to Assad cannot seem to get itself settled in the Syrian territory liberated from the regime.

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ZAC BAILLIE / AFP / Getty Images

A Syrian refugee child helps a man to collect wood at a refugee camp in Bab al-Salam on the Syria-Turkey border, Jan. 9, 2013.

Even as Syria’s rebels capture more territory in their war against President Bashar Assad’s forces—including a key helicopter base on Friday—international diplomats are struggling to find a way out of the conflict, stymied by hardening positions, as each side digs in, seemingly unwilling to yield political points. The latest sign of how difficult it will be to end Syria’s war came on Friday, when Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns met in Geneva with U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, in yet another attempt to craft a political plan on which all could agree. “Optimism and pessimism are difficult to define,” Brahimi told reporters as he tried to dodge a question about the mood of the daylong meeting in Geneva. “We are trying to find an opening to begin to aid the Syrians in this terrible situation.”

As the talks showed, that will not be easy. Just last month, Bogdanov informally broke with Moscow’s long-held support for Assad, bluntly stating what Western leaders had long regarded as obvious: That the rebels appeared headed for inevitable victory, even if it takes a while; shortly after, President Vladimir Putin said Russia was “not that preoccupied” with Syria’s regime, hinting that he believed Assad was a spent force. But while those remarks suggest that Russia was edging away from its critical military and financial support for its closest Arab ally, Russian officials insist that they will not push for Assad’s removal.

In contrast to Russia’s support, President Obama last month formally recognized the exiled Syrian National Coalition as the true representatives of the Syrian people. U.S. and European diplomats have also stated that Assad has no place in Syria’s future. After months of shuttling between Moscow and Damascus, Brahimi finally voiced the same opinion on Thursday, telling reporters that Assad would “surely not be a member” of any transitional government, set up under an international agreement drawn up last year. “I think that what [the Syrian] people are saying is that a family [the Assads] ruling for 40 years is a little bit too long,” Brahimi told the BBC. “The change has to be real.”

(PHOTOS: The Victims of Assad: Photographs by Peter Hapak)

After countless meetings and conferences in the Middle East and Europe, there is no clear international game plan, however. And on Thursday Assad effectively ended his cordial relationship with Brahimi, accusing the former Algerian Foreign Minister of “flagrant bias” towards the rebels. That has put in doubt Brahimi’s ability to try to broker a peace deal. “If Brahimi does not get support in the next few days, his mission I think is over,” Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, and a Syria expert, told TIME by phone from London, where Syrian opposition leaders met Western diplomats this week, to try forge an emergency humanitarian plan. “This is the moment of truth,” he said.

While international diplomacy inches along at a snail’s pace, the rebels are gaining far faster on the battlefield. On Friday, commanders claimed to have captured the key helicopter base of Taftanaz in the northern province of Idlib, which they had described as crucial for their ability to establish an area safe from bombing attacks by Assad’s forces.

Such an area is increasingly necessary, as millions of Syrians struggle to endure the bitter winter, with scarce international assistance. On Friday U.N. aid agencies warned that millions of Syrians are now living in dire conditions, with worsening shortages of food and fuel and precious little electricity. “Violence has left four million people inside Syria in desperate need of help,” the heads of the World Food Program, the U.N. refugee agency and UNICEF, wrote in a joint opinion piece posted on CNN.com. The conflict, they said, “has uprooted two million inside the country and sent 600,000 fleeing the horrors of war into neighboring countries.”

(PHOTOS: Chaos and Killing in Syria: Photos of a Slow-Motion Civil War)

Added to the misery is the fact that only a handful of foreign aid workers have dared venture into rebel areas, which are under daily bombardment. On Thursday, Doctors Without Borders, one of few such, said in a statement that injured Syrians now have few options for treatment in rebel-held areas. Describing a visit to a city in Idlib province, which he did not name, the organization’s emergency operations manager Mego Terzian said, “People are stepping up to act as nurses or even surgeons, because there is simply nobody else to do it. Faced with the seriousness of the injuries and the risks involved in evacuating patients, many of the wounded are dying because they are not getting treatment or cannot be evacuated in time.”

The crisis could perhaps be eased if aid can be funneled through Syria’s exiled opposition leaders, who were anointed as the sole political representatives by dozens of Arab, European and African countries at a conference last month in Morocco. The coalition has formed a humanitarian group, based in Cairo, to coordinate millions of dollars in international aid for Syrians, which opposition leaders say has been slow in coming. “We’re coordinating with people inside Syria to solve problems,” George Sabra, a coalition leader, told TIME by phone from Istanbul on Friday. “Unfortunately the international community seems not to care about our difficulties.”

In fact, the opposition leaders credibility is on the line, too. Despite their international recognition, the coalition has so far remained outside Syria, despite Western leaders urging them to enter rebel-held areas and begin working on the ground. Many diplomats have said they believe that is essential for the exiled opposition to build relationships with the local commanders, and to bolster their credentials to rule Syria once Assad goes—a political solution which Western leaders are strongly hoping for. “The coalition is trying to build a mechanism with the local councils,” says Shaikh, of the Brookings Doha Center. “But if they’re not on the ground in a month or two and cannot show tangible results, people will forget the coalition,” he says. “And meanwhile, people are freezing to death, literally.”

MORE: As Bashar Assad Shows His Defiance, Syria Nears Its Existential Cliff

13 comments
WimRoffel
WimRoffel

"what Western leaders had long regarded as obvious: That the rebels appeared headed for inevitable victory, even if it takes a while;"

This doesn't sound very realistic. At several times aid to the rebels has been increased because their uprising showed signs of losing steam. It is only "obvious" that the Western leaders are not prepared to let the rebels lose - no matter the price.

As for the victories of the rebels in the North - they shouldn't be exaggerated. It has at least partly to do with a change of strategy of Assad who has been gaining ground in the Homs - Qusair region and seems less inclined to spend endless resources on bases in the middle of rebel territory.

ChandraPanchabhikesan
ChandraPanchabhikesan

Why is the international community allowing Assad  to get away with mass murder? Surely he can be apprehended before more innocent lives are lost! Surely the Russians and the Chinese can be convinced of the futility of supporting a leader with blood dripping from his hands! Future generations would be shocked by the tragic happenings and the inept, slow international response. A summit between Presidents Obama and Putin should be a welcome first step! After his inauguration for his second term term, Obama needs to be be more proactive with regard to international affairs. By and large, he is a compassionate leader.   

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: “With all due respect to the international community, it is, of course, the Syrian people who must decide” the future of Syria.  “The international community must not incite either side toward violence or pose preliminary conditions.”
http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2012/12/28/280537/russia-urges-syria-to-join-talks/
“In accordance with the principles of international law, which have been approved by the UN, no country, no nation, no government should take action aimed at the violent change of a political regime in any other country,” Dmitry Medvedev told French media on the eve of his visit to Paris.
THE PRINCIPLE OF NON-INTERFERENCE IN THE INTERNAL AFFAIRS OF STATES
http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/36/a36r103.htm

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

Vivienne Walt need to teach international law, in order to adequately judge the position of Russia in respect of Syria, and not to try to introduce readers to their imagination and a woman's logic.

DavidSilver
DavidSilver

Don't worry, the United Nations are coming

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

Vivienne Walt lives in Paris...

Thierry Meyssan. France:
Of the 23 million Syrians about two to two and a half million support armed groups trying to destabilize the country and weaken his army. They took control of several cities and vast rural areas. In no case will these armed groups be able to overthrow the regime.

The plan provided that the initial Western terrorist actions would create a cycle of provocation / repression justifying international intervention on the model of the KLA terrorism and repression by Slobodan Milosevic, followed by the NATO intervention. By the way it has been attested to that fighting groups in Syria were trained in terrorism by members of the KLA on Kosovo.

This plan failed because Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not that of Boris Yeltsin. Moscow and Beijing have interdicted NATO intervention and since then the situation has stagnated.
http://www.voltairenet.org/article176914.html


Thierry Meyssan
"The FSA continues to shine like a dead star"
http://www.voltairenet.org/article177011.html

TrueBeliever
TrueBeliever

It is not fair for the children of Syria to bear this terrible burden.  Why are we sending aid to Haiti when the Syrians need our help?

outspoken
outspoken

Diplomacy !!  What diplomacy ?  Lybian  style  or  Iraqi   style !!  Sorry  Putin  is in  Charge.

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

@ChandraPanchabhikesan 

Russia does not support Bashar al-Assad, Russia and China, the protection of international law. The United States is responsible for the support of international terrorists, who are in Syria and for incitement to bloodshed. You can't divide teroristov on the bad and the moderates . Bashar al-Assad is the legitimate President of a sovereign country. The task of any President, to defend their nation against internal and external enemies. If you think that Bashar al-Asad to be afraid of a handful of terrorists, then you're wrong. Syrian regular army successfully grinds the hordes of international terrorists who penetrate into Syria in the Jihad from all over the world. If you think that in Russia it is enough to say: "Bashar must go!" and all will be resolved, then you are not right even more. The President of Syria is to listen to our opinion, but all the decisions it takes on their own.

ByteMarx
ByteMarx

@Sibir This would make sense were it not for the inconvenient reality of Russian interference in the Balkans. And Baltic States. And central Asia.