The seige in Damascus
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The Syrian crisis is threatening to spin out of control and has ramifications for the entire region. The insurgency and repression, virulent since July 2012, has acquired the dimensions of a civil war. It has taken a heavy toll on human life, with large-scale internal displacement of people and several lakh cross-border refugees fleeing to the neighbouring states of Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon.
The Syrian uprising began on a relatively modest scale. There was an uprising in the Sunni-dominated southern town of Deraa in March 2011 against the Bashar al-Assad regime. The Assads belong to a minority community of Alawis, the majority being Sunni Muslims. The Syrian government dealt with the protest in Deraa firmly, but as the Sunni-dominated unrest spread to other areas, the army entered Baniyas, Hama, Homs, Talkalakh, Latakia. After repression and arrests, the Syrian government announced a slew of political concessions, accommodating most of the initial demands of the protesters. This could have been the basis of a political dialogue. However, it wasn't to be, with postures hardening on both sides, increasing militarisation and a complex situation made more complicated by the intervention of powerful regional and global players.
Turkey became increasingly critical of Assad and an open supporter of the Syrian opposition, with the Syrian National Council (SNC), a civilian umbrella organisation of seven opposition groups, being set up in Istanbul in August 2011. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was also set up in Turkey. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria, frosty at the best of times, deteriorated sharply, and the former was one of the first in the region to condemn the Assad regime. Apart from championing the cause of the Sunni majority in Syria, the Saudis also wanted to curb the influence of regional rival Iran. It took the lead in rallying the Gulf countries and other Arab states to the cause, successfully isolated Syria in the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Countries, and joined Western powers in the UN in pressing for tougher sanctions against Syria.
Syria's proximity to Iran and its hostility to Israel has led to adversarial relations with the US, which had also accused Syria of exporting state-sponsored terrorism. With the Syrian uprising, views and national interest converged for the West. The US renewed sanctions against Syria and further international sanctions were imposed. Covert aid, intelligence support and non-lethal weapons were provided by US through intermediaries to the Syrian opposition. Although increasingly isolated, Syria continued to get diplomatic, financial and military support from Russia, its most important ally, as well as China and Iran.
With the arraignment of regional and global powers favouring one or the other side and the continued flow of external aid and weapons to both, there was no way to douse the fire in Syria. The Syrian unrest, after months in slow motion, accelerated towards the close of 2011. Kofi Annan was appointed by the UN and the Arab League to head a peace mission and for a brief period there was a let up in violence. Meanwhile, resolutions brought up by the US, Qatar and Saudi Arabia in the Security Council, condemning the Assad regime and seeking targeted sanctions, were vetoed by Russia and China. With a divided Security Council, the peace mission could not make headway and Annan resigned from his office even as violence sharply escalated in mid-2012. There was a new hardening of the US stance and the flow of weapons and aid to rebels intensified. They mounted bolder attacks, including suicide bombings. The regime brutally hit back with tanks, helicopters and war planes.
Both sides claim to be close to a decisive victory. But what looms on the horizon is a protracted civil war. Jihadis of all hues, including al-Qaeda and Salafist elements, have poured into Syria to fight alongside the leaderless rebels. The Syrian opposition remains disunited and fractious; the SNC, driven by Syrian exiles, is not inclusive or representative. The FSA, also exile-driven, does not accept civilian control and is itself divided. A new umbrella organisation, the National Coalition for Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, has yet to prove itself. What started as a genuine popular uprising has now morphed into a free-for-all. As the battle of attrition drags on, the conflict is tearing the Syrian social fabric apart. The external aid and military supplies to both sides have only prolonged the crisis. Assad's war machine, with its committed Alawi core military leadership and formidable air force, though bruised, is still largely intact. And it would be naive to expect a large-scale external military intervention or early military solution.
To move forward, declared UN Security General Ban Ki-moon, "we must stop the violence and flow of arms to both sides and set in motion a Syrian-led transition as soon as possible." Russia and China have spoken in favour of a politically managed process in Syria without external interference or preconditions. India, so far content with playing a low-key role in the UN and outside, has also advocated a political transition. A political solution, however, with today's ground realities, would appear to be a distant prospect.
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