x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Civil war or no, Syria is now entering a decisive phase

Every discussion of Syria now includes the words "civil war". This is not a foregone conclusion, though options for the Assad regime are diminishing daily.

Every discussion of Syria now includes the words "civil war". Among some of Syria's neighbours there are predictions that war could last five years and tear the country apart as viciously as happened in Iraq.

The attack by rebel soldiers on Wednesday on the Air Force Intelligence directorate - a symbol of the ruling family since the late president, Hafez Al Assad, rose through the ranks of the air force - seems to confirm the drift towards civil war.

But it is too soon to be certain. There is still a chance to prevent a civil war. What we are seeing is a series of local battles which, crucially for the stability of the regime of Bashar Al Assad, are not so far taking place in the main cities of Damascus and Aleppo.

There are plenty of defections from the army, but these seem to be local affairs. There are no generals among the defectors, the highest renegade officer so far being a colonel. There is no military leader of national standing, nor any liberated territory or foreign safe haven to act as springboard for the so-called Free Syrian Army. In any case, this "army" still has to prove it is a unified force, not just a weapon of propaganda.

What is undeniable is that the unrest has reached a new stage after eight months, and that this phase will be the decisive one.

If the clashes are allowed to drag on, it is clear that the outcome will not be anything like the one in Libya which, for all its oil reserves, is a country of little consequence in Arab affairs. Libya's neighbours - Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia - seemed almost disinterested in the conflict.

One only has to look back to the last time that the fate of Syria was in play, in the 1950s, to see how geography makes Syria an entirely different proposition.

At that time every Syrian politician - and every general and quite a few colonels - was in the pay of one of the regional powers, be it Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia or France. In the end the country fell exhausted into the arms of the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, creating a short-lived union, the United Arab Republic.

As history has proven, whatever sanctions are imposed on Syria it will never become an island. It is umbilically connected to Lebanon and Iraq, and to Jordan and Palestine. Unrest and sectarian strife in Syria are likely to spread to these countries, whether by osmosis or as a tactic by a flailing regime to punish its enemies.

All this helps to explain why the Arab League, so long known as a vacuous talking shop, has moved so swiftly to expel Syria and try to force it to pull its tanks off the streets. Syria has been given until tomorrow to agree to accept civilian and military observers to monitor a so-far stillborn peace initiative or face sanctions.

The stakes in Syria are too high for the Arab League to do nothing. But ultimately there is a personal issue here. President Bashar Al Assad has exhausted his credibility with the Arab states. Those countries, such as Algeria, which might be inclined to support Syria, have been given nothing to work with. The attacks on Arab embassies by mobs which are clearly authorised by the regime indicate that the regime is living in its own world. The only conclusion is that the president, after a decade in power, is not up to the job of running the country.

A few months ago the Arab states would have been willing to work with Mr Assad, provided he recognised that times have changed and that Arab rulers must pay some consideration to public opinion. But the current situation is a threat to the stability of all.

This is not to say that the regime is losing the battle. The iron fist has scored a series of tactical successes. Life continues largely as normal in the centres of Damascus and Aleppo. Uprisings in Homs, Deraa and other cities have been brutally crushed.

But these tactical victories could still end in defeat for the regime which knows only the use of force. The victors would wreak a terrible vengeance on the regime's supporters - the Alawite minority who act as Mr Assad's praetorian guard, the Christians and other sects who feel protected by Baathist secular ideology, and some within the business class who have clung to the status quo for fear of Iraq-style chaos.

In its propaganda the regime has always portrayed itself as under attack by hardline Sunni Muslim fundamentalists and has presented the uprising as a civil war. Neither claim was true at the start of the protests, but this sectarian rhetoric is bound to make both claims turn into ghastly reality.

In the Libya conflict, most Arab states were happy to let Nato be the outside force which allowed the anti-Qaddafi rebels to triumph.

In Syria they have turned to Turkey to brandish a so-far sheathed sword. Not the least surprising element of this is that the Washington has put aside its complaints at Turkey's estrangement from Israel and now welcomes Ankara's engagement.

Clearly in Washington's eyes Turkey's pragmatic, modernised Islamism is preferable to Iran-style radical anti-Americanism. Not all Arab states are convinced, though. Some see Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party as looking uncomfortably like a clean-shaven Muslim Brotherhood.

But so far Turkey is the only available lever to use against the Assad regime. Its threat to recognise the opposition Syrian National Council, arm the Syrian Free Army and set up a buffer zone along the border would change the balance of power and transform the conflict.

But a series of local conflicts could still turn into a civil war from which the Assad regime would be unlikely to escape. Is this enough to scare Mr Assad into accepting the Arab League's proposals? Nothing in his history suggests that the president is likely to make such a concession.

It is, however, hard to see what other chance he has.