EDITORIAL: Tragedy unfolding in Syria
Last week when the news surfaced that Syria had agreed to accept the United Nations brokered peace agreement, there was widespread scepticism that President Bashar Al-Assad was merely buying time and trying to divide the opposition.
Under the deal, brokered by Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League special envoy, the Syrian army was scheduled to withdraw from protest cities on Tuesday, with a complete end to fighting set for tomorrow.
On Monday, the agreement began to look shaky after Bashar al-Assad’s government raised new, last-minute demands that were rejected by the country’s armed opposition. China has called on all parties to honour their commitments.
Syria has since said it would only carry out its side of the bargain if the rebels first handed over written guarantees to stop fighting, a demand rejected by the leader of the largest armed opposition group, the Free Syria Army.
The real fear is that an all-out civil war in Syria, a vital geopolitical linchpin in that region, could spark a regional conflagration. It borders five other nations, has close ties to Iran and controls water supplies to Iraq, Jordan and parts of Israel.
Syria controlled Lebanon for decades and still carries sway there. Further unrest could provoke fighting in Lebanon, which is still haunted by its own civil war. Although Israel has occupied Syria’s Golan Heights since 1967, the frontier has remained quiet under Assad’s rule.
That in part could explain why the rest of the world has treated the Syrian tragedy with such indifference, so much so that it is seen as a chip in a game in terms of interest and influence. Except for the occasional footnote, this conflict has not got intense international media attention like others.
The situation is far from conducive to meeting the UN’s goals for a cessation of violence. Instead, the Syrian government is engaging in a race against time to create a stronger strategic position for itself on the ground; whatever the collateral damage inflicted.
Three issues will determine the fate of the Annan initiative: the capacity of the UN Security Council to intervene, given the position of Russia and China; the Syrian government’s sense of restraint; and the capacity of the opposition to mount a serious challenge to the Assad regime.
The critical factor will be the ability of the various opposition groups to form a more coherent and coordinated “Arab Spring” to change the Assad regime, drawing on the substantial support garnered in the Middle East and around the world to assist them in their goal.
It is therefore difficult not to be pessimistic about the success of the UN’s plan put forward by Kofi Annan, particularly when considered in the context of its history over the past 60 years.
We can only hope this pessimism is proved wrong, something the events of the next few days will prove either way.