As Arab and Western diplomats work to fashion tools to pressure the Syrian regime to end its military response to a year-old rebellion, an unrelenting artillery exacts a terrible daily toll on the residents of rebel-held Sunni neighborhoods of the city of Homs. The key question in play in foreign capitals and on the bloody battle on the ground is whether or not Bashar al-Assad will be part of any political solution to the civil war spilling across Syria.
No, says the Arab League. After its political transition plan was rebuffed by a Russian and Chinese veto at the U.N. Security Council, the League has been pressed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to contemplate more aggressive forms of pressure. Arab leaders have declared it unconscionable to stand by in the face of the slow-motion massacre of pro-rebel Sunni communities, and the League on Sunday called for the Security Council to mandate a joint U.N.-Arab League peacekeeping force to restore stability in Syria. It also for the first time committed the League to back the Syrian opposition, urging member states to break ties with Damascus.
The peacekeeping idea is a non-starter, of course, because there’s obviously no peace to keep. The very premise of such a force is that the main combatants agree to end the fighting; the Arab League specifies that the purpose of the U.N.-Arab force it envisages would be to “supervise the execution of a cease-fire.” International peacekeeping forces don’t fight their way into conflict zones; they enter only with the consent of the sovereign power. And the Assad regime scornfully rejected the idea—and had made clear in its sustained military campaign to break the resistance of Homs, control of which may be central to its military plans, that it has no interest in a cease-fire at a moment when much of the city remains in rebel hands. Russia has signaled it might be open to okaying on such a force, but only if the Assad regime first agrees to its entry. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov also questioned whether the armed opposition groups on the ground, which don’t seem to answer to a single political authority, are able to adopt a cease-fire.
Even if Western and Arab powers were inclined toward a more muscular intervention along the lines seen in Libya —and there’s no sign that they are, right now —China and Russia’s vetoes would prevent any U.N. mandate for such action. It may be that the Arab League’s purpose in making the call was to send a message to Assad and his protectors that they can either accept the peace plan they’ve previously nixed, or else face the prospect of intervention by a “Friends of Syria” coalition involving Arab states, Turkey and Western governments, which is due to convene in Tunisia at the end of this month.
Assad clearly prefers the odds in escalating a sectarian civil war, betting that at least one third of the population will prefer his regime to an armed rebellion that will inevitably be dominated by Sunni Islamists. Assad is counting on his own Alawite sect, a syncretic spinoff of Shi’ism, whose members dominate the state, ruling party, and security forces in the way that the Sunni minority had done in Iraq—and which fears that majority-rule would bring them the same retrenchment of power and influence, or worse, as befell Iraq’s Sunnis. But much of Syria’s Christian and Kurdish minorities, as well as smaller religious groups, may also be more fearful of their fate at the hands of a successful rebellion by the Sunni majority than they are disgruntled by Assad’s sclerotic authoritarianism.
Right now, despite their popular support, courage and resilience in sustaining the rebellion against such heavy odds, the rebels are militarily no match for the regime. Arming them, as some of the more strident Arab enemies of Assad are wont to do, remains a long-term project replete with many new perils, and even then may not change the regime’s calculations. Assad will also be betting that besides the geopolitical interests that drive China and Russia’s blocking of U.N. action, other neighbors and foreign powers may lack the appetite for a war that threatens to tear apart the system of nation states that replaced Ottoman rule in the Levant at the end of World War I.
A simple glance at the map confirms the artificiality of the border between Syria and Iraq—or, indeed, the one between Syria and Jordan, or those between Jordan and Iraq, and so on. Unlike borders that emerge historically on the basis of natural boundaries such as waterways and mountains, or along the armistice lines established when history’s armies fought each other to a standstill, most of the Syria-Iraq-Jordan borders are dead straight.That’s because they were drawn by Frenchmen and Britons wielding pencil, ruler, and the World War I victors’ prerogative of parceling out the domain of a defeated foe. The contemporary nation-states of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia—even Israel, albeit a few decades later—are all products of the Western carve-up of old Ottoman provinces. They’re less than a century old, and the prospects for some of them making it to or much beyond that milestone are starting to look a little shaky.
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In smashing the Sunni-dominated order in Baghdad in 2003 and allowing the empowerment of the Shi’ite majority through Iraqi democracy, the U.S. invasion triggered a region-wide Sunni-Shi’ite battle for power, with Saudi Arabia’s Sunni monarchy and Iran’s Shi’ite theocracy serving as opposite poles of the sectarian divide. By opting for battle on this terrain, Assad knows that Syria’s sectarian war will not be fought by Syrians alone. His enemies have claimed for weeks that Iranian security personnel are helping plot the Syrian regime’s military campaign against its opponents. It’s unlikely that Iran and Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hizballah movement will passively watch their Syrian ally—and the land bridge between them—displaced by a hostile regime. The strategic prospects of all three are closely entwined, and require intervention if opportunities arise.
The opposition, meanwhile, is receiving men and material from Sunni militants in Lebanon and Iraq, and al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman Zawahiri even took the opportunity last week to issue a statement from the wilds of Waziristan exhorting his movement’s followers to rally to the cause of Syria’s opposition. U.S. officials reportedly believe al-Qaeda’s Iraqi chapter may have been behind last Friday’s bombing in Aleppo, and a previous one in Damascus—a propaganda nugget for the Assad regime, which likes to pin the whole uprising on al-Qaeda. Even Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, the largest party in the Kingdom’s parliament of limited powers, last weekend proclaimed it the duty of Muslims everywhere to wage “jihad” by “all necessary means” against Assad.
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Lebanese, Iraqi and Jordanian Sunnis organizing themselves to fight Assad will inevitably boost their ability —and, if history is any judge, their inclination— to challenge their home governments. Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shi’ites fought a civil war that lasted almost two decades, and constantly threatens to erupt anew. And Iraq’s Sunni militants have never fully ceased their campaign against the Iran-friendly Shi’ite government in Baghdad (which has supported Assad throughout the uprising). The brittle Sunni monarchy in Jordan, a longtime adversary of Assad, nonetheless has plenty of reason to fear a surge of its citizens taking up arms against the ‘infidel’ regime next door. The emergence of al-Qaeda among the volunteers that had gone from their countries to fight the Soviet ‘infidel’ in Afghanistan will have served as a cautionary tale. The destabilizing potential in a protracted Syria war is considerable.
The Arab League’s position, however, seems to recognize that stopping the conflict will involve negotiation with the Assad regime. The League’s general secretary Nabil el-Araby said Sunday that “the violence cannot stop without a common view on a political compromise.” Indeed. And it may be the shape of such a compromise that is being determined in battles such as Homs, right now. Once wars are underway, diplomatic solutions are usually shaped by the balance of forces on the ground. Arab and Western powers, as well as Syria’s opposition, want Assad gone, and for any political solution to be focused on replacing him. Assad, meanwhile, is looking to fight his way off the ropes: If he can’t destroy the rebellion (and it’s unlikely that he can, given the breadth of rebel support), he’ll at least expect a draw, an outcome that will ensure that he’s at the table shaping any political solution, still holding powerful cards. But with neither side likely to accept the other’s terms any time soon, the violence in Syria looks set to continue—and probably get worse.