The Syrian Catastrophe

Is it Iraq all over again? NoT yet. Because the final balance of the war in Syria has not yet tipped against the Assad regime. But Washington looks restless as Obama has already accused Assad of crossing the red-line threshold by using chemical weapons against civilians. In other words Syria is now an ideal case for military intervention. But any military intervention in Syria will be a geo-political intervention against the Assad regime. In the absence of immediate intervetion, the American administration is likely to arm the rebels, somewhat overly. Right now Britain and France are doing it.

The main division in Syria is not sectarian or regional, it is simply between the Assad regime as an overarching establishment and its opponents who are revolting against the totalitarian rule.

The conflict that broke out in Syria has gone through several phases since it began in the early months of 2011. The process has continued in the first half of 2013. What is happening in Syria now poses grave questions to leading regional and global powers, not least the United States.

In the second week of June 2013 alone, the suicide-bombing of a police station in Damascus by anti-Assad forces killed both police and civilians; rebels are reported to have inflicted more than sixty deaths in Hatla, following an attack on their positions that may have originated from that village; and a regime helicopter fired missiles at the Lebanese town of Arsal, used as a staging-post for getting supplies into Syria (and host to some 20,700 Syrian refugees).

Behind such everyday incidents of deaths, injuries and destruction, the general assessment is that the war has moved in favour of Bashar al-Assad's regime. The loss of the strategic town of Al-Qusayr on 5 June—where Syria's Lebanese ally Hizbollah was heavily involved, and where as many as 400 rebels were killed—is an indicator of this. There are now reports that the regime's forces are being prepared for an assault on rebel forces in Aleppo, Syria's largest city.

For one thing, there are deep divisions among the rebel forces. Many small militias are fighting in a largely uncoordinated manner, often with limited supplies of arms, and engaging in pillage of the towns and villages they occupy.

But more arms to the rebels means more arms from Russia and Iran to Assad—and far more people getting killed. The war will therefore continue, mixing greater control by the regime with overall stalemate.

Then there lies a real possibility that Riyadh—more than London, Paris, Washington or Moscow—will dictate what happens in Syria in coming days. A high level of committed diplomacy and good sense involving Russia and the United States might be the only way to avert this. Meanwhile, the pain and ruin in Syria continue. Nobody is talking about the plight of Syrians, albeit the fighting is bitter and destructive as ever.

Vol. 46, No. 1, Jul 14- 20, 2013

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