Syria: Is This an Arab Spring or a Balkan Winter?

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Members of the Free Syrian Army take part in a protest in Qusayr, 15 km from Homs, in central Syria, on May 7, 2012

Special envoy Kofi Annan told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that his struggling peace plan is the last hope to prevent Syria from plunging into an all-out civil war. But the reason his cease-fire and political-dialogue plan has not yet stopped the fighting, despite the truce that was formally agreed to a month ago, is that Syria is, in fact, already engaged in a civil war. Some 15 months after Syria’s rebellion began, it is clear that President Bashar Assad has effectively eluded the narrative arc that would deliver him the fate of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak or Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Instead, Assad has taken a leaf from the playbook of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Political violence in Syria was once front-page news in the Western media, where coverage appeared to assume that the Arab Spring had come to Syria and that Assad would shortly go the way of Mubarak or Gaddafi. But Syria today appears to be more of an echo of the Balkan wars of the early ’90s, than of the Arab Spring in its early teens. This brutal civil conflict pits rival communities against one another on a sectarian basis, while Western powers appear paralyzed as peace initiatives brought on by foreign diplomats flounder and cease-fires are violated by both sides. It rarely makes the front page when Syrians are butchered by other Syrians, despite the fact that the death toll has climbed past 9,000. The arguments for and against intervention have become well-worn and familiar. Syria’s civil war has become the new normal.

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Almost two decades ago, amid the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serb forces under President Slobodan Milosevic and his Bosnian-Serb protégés launched a war to carve up Bosnia and expand territory under Serbian control through a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing [EM] a term that no longer appears in quotation marks in Western media coverage, but back then was a grotesque euphemism for pogroms directed at Bosnian Muslims and Croats. The war began in earnest a month after the main protagonists had signed onto an international peace plan named for its creators, the British diplomat Lord Peter Carrington and Portuguese Ambassador José Cutileiro.

What followed was years of brutal fighting before NATO began to enforce a no-fly zone in 1994 and eventually stepped up its intervention to force the parties to accept an unhappy power-sharing peace agreement signed in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995. One of its signatories was Milosevic, who had cemented his position through the war to the point that he had become indispensable to the prospect of restoring peace. (Justice had to wait some five years more before Milosevic would be overthrown by the Serbian people and sent off to face a war-crimes trial at The Hague, where he died.)

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President Bashar Assad appears to have decided early in the Syria campaign that he’d rather be Milosevic than Gaddafi, albeit with a different ending. And thus far he’s doing a pretty effective job. Now that this has turned from protest movement to sectarian civil war, he has managed to sidestep the demand that he should step down. Instead, peace plans are now based on securing his agreement to stop state violence. Despite Annan reporting a drop in violence, it’s far from clear whether many of those doing the fighting against Assad are ready to observe a cease-fire, even though by defying it, they give the regime political and diplomatic advantage. And the regime certainly is continuing to direct its fire wherever it is challenged, knowing that it dominates on the terrain of violence.

Assad’s forces have the upper hand militarily and seem easily able to prevent opposition fighters from holding territory, even if the regime is unable to militarily eliminate the rebellion. Despite talk, particularly by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, of arming the rebels, there’s little sign of any such assistance, with the rebels struggling to find money to buy ammunition. And, of course, Assad has managed to talk Western powers back from insisting that he step down to instead focusing on a solution that brings violence to a halt while he remains in charge.

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Unlike Gaddafi, Assad is benefiting from strong diplomatic support from Russia and China, which oppose any foreign intervention aimed at regime change in Syria, as well as military and economic aid from its key regional ally, Iran. Europe is focused on the slow-moving economic catastrophe brought on by its financial crisis while the U.S., as in 1992, is in a state of recession and focused on a presidential campaign, its appetite for expeditionary warfare maxed out in Iraq and Afghanistan. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who championed the NATO intervention in Libya, has just been voted out of office. His successor, President-elect François Hollande, has made clear that France would only get involved in a military action in Syria within a U.N. framework [EM] which is unlikely to be created, because Russia and China are likely to veto any Security Council authorization for intervention.

Turkey has become the focus of hopes for some sort of intervention, given its role in hosting the Free Syrian Army and its anger at Assad’s handling of the crisis. But the fact that Syrian refugee camps in Turkey are taking on the features of a permanent facility suggests that Turkey is not about to intervene to topple the regime in order to bring a decisive end to the conflict. Instead, it is hunkering down for a protracted war.

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But while all the intervention scenarios carry major risks, passivity in the face of the conflict’s escalation promotes a radicalization of the opposition. The growing incidence of suicide bombings and other evidence of jihadist involvement are giving Western governments pause. For now, though, international involvement is limited to Annan’s cease-fire efforts and the 30 monitors on the ground to oversee its implementation. Although their numbers are due to rise to 300, they’re not intended as a force to actually stop violence, as much as to generate political and diplomatic pressure.

There was a note of resignation in White House Press Secretary Jay Carney’s choice of words, last week, when he noted that “if the regime’s intransigence continues, the international community is going to have to admit defeat … It is clear and we will not deny that the plan has not been succeeding thus far.” Carney’s point, of course, is that admitting failure would require that the international community come up with an alternative. But there’s not much sign of a substantially different plan B emerging anytime soon. In Bosnia, of course, it took years [EM] and even then, the solution was not so much a happy ending, as it was making the best of a bad situation.

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