x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Back moderate Syrian groups for stable future

Marginalising more radical fighters in Syria, backing moderates and discouraging escalation offer the best hope of getting this war over.

There is an adage that might have been written just to describe the Russian government's view on the continuing destruction of Syria: "There are none so blind as those who will not see."

Abundant evidence, in the form of mass graves and urban rubble and body bags and maimed civilians, proves that Bashar Al Assad and his cronies must go. Yet Moscow continues to support an ally responsible for Syria's suffering. Now, Russia and the Arab League are proposing talks between the government and the opposition.

To be sure, anything that ends the fighting would be welcomed by Syria's 21 million people - and around the region, where refugees and sectarian divisions are spilling over Syria's borders, threatening to bring large-scale violence with them. But talks alone will not end the carnage.

The newest threat is from elements of the Free Syrian Army, which despite its name is a loose, even fractious grouping of foes of the regime. An FSA commander said on Wednesday that if Hizbollah forces in Lebanon continue shelling rebel positions in Syria, the FSA will counter-attack. This evokes the chilling prospect of a wider war.

There is however a middle way between shaking hands with the Assads and endless, expanding combat: western and regional powers can and should seek out and provide support - material, financial or both - to politically moderate fighting groups within the opposition, and also work to bolster local political and societal leaders, who can be a natural force for peace and stability.

Encouragingly, at least some of this does seem to be happening. Certain sophisticated weapons, never possessed by the Syrian military, have started to appear in the hands of "secular or moderate units" of the FSA, according to news reports. Modern rocket- and grenade-launchers and recoilless guns, with plenty of ammunition, turned up early this year in Deraa province, and are now seen widely in the south, and near Damascus, and always with politically moderate units. Nobody is declaring the source of this potent weaponry, but informed speculation involves the UK and regional powers.

When the regime goes, as it will, the FSA units that have fought most effectively will have the upper hand in determining what comes next for Syria. Marginalising more radical fighters, backing moderates and discouraging the type of escalation that some FSA commanders are threatening offers the best hope of getting this war over, and assuring some stability in tomorrow's Syria.