x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Diplomacy not dead in Syria's bloody crisis

Diplomacy, as limited a tool as it might seem in Syria, has not yet run its course. And it is exactly because the opposition is taking up arms from abroad that diplomacy is more relevant than ever.

As Syria's conflict becomes a bloodbath, and the Red Cross struggles to provide aid to the most vulnerable, countries around the world are grasping for solutions.

Among the myriad ideas, from direct armed intervention and no-fly zones to safety corridors and close air support, the one that is gaining the most steam is the arming of Syrian rebels. Two Gulf states - Saudi Arabia and Qatar - are said to be in advanced planning for this eventuality, while other nations have pledged millions of dirhams to support the opposition, particularly the Free Syrian Army (a group, or rather groups, of military defectors).

There are good reasons to funnel arms to those looking to topple Bashar Al Assad (not to mention Syrians looking to protect themselves from summary execution, torture and arbitrary detention).

But there are equally sound reasons to proceed cautiously. Syria is far more complex than Libya. Indeed, there are likely to be consequences for arming a fractured alliance. That is precisely why other options can and must be explored seriously and with a renewed sense of urgency before weapons flow freely.

Diplomacy, as limited a tool as it might seem in Syria now, has not yet run its course. And it is exactly because the opposition is taking up arms from abroad that diplomacy becomes more relevant than ever. The threat of civil war and the rise of Islamists are in no one's interest. But these threats are becoming more real than ever before.

The Friends of Syria contact group, which includes more than 60 countries, Gulf states among them, got the dialogue started last month. Now, this initiative needs to turn up the heat on Russia and China, the two nations standing in the way of a unified international response.

Here is where we see a glimmer of hope. Both Moscow and Beijing have shown signs that their support for Mr Al Assad is not unconditional. Russia's Vladimir Putin has said there is an urgent need for a political settlement, while both nations have supported calls for UN humanitarian access to Syria. Mr Al Assad relies on Moscow for weapons and China for trade and cash. Greater pressure from the Arab League and Gulf states could convince Syria's allies to switch sides, and therefore help alter the course of events.

Mr Al Assad's few friends - inside the regime and out - must know that there will be no returning to the tranquil past. No matter how long Mr Al Assad hangs on, his regime will be weaker, its grip on power more tenuous. To protect their long-term interests in the Middle East, Russia and China should be made to recognise this.