x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

No breakthrough in Syrian civil war as Obama sits out

With Washington sitting out the Syrian conflict, other countries that support the rebels can achieve little.

A despairing BBC correspondent in Damascus commented: "If you are not confused by what is going on in Syria, then you do not understand it." This week has been a particularly confusing one, with a torrent of news developments. It may go down as the time when the civil war emerged as a full-fledged regional war by proxy, with ever more countries becoming engaged.

The week began with Hizbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, admitting that his men were fighting alongside the Syrian regime's forces, on an openly sectarian basis to prevent a victory by the Sunni Muslim jihadis.

Then Britain and France arm-twisted the European Union into ending its arms embargo on the Syrian opposition, opening the way for more arms to enter into the war zone. This prompted Moscow to say it would deliver advanced S300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria to "stabilise the situation" and deter "hotheads", provoking threats of pre-emptive action from Israel.

At the same time, the Syrian National Coalition, the new-model opposition body, failed to increase its membership as required by its international backers, and broke up in disarray, to taunts of "Aren't you ashamed?" from the exasperated French ambassador.

Convincing evidence emerged in the French newspaper Le Monde of regular, if low-level, use of chemical agents by the Syrian army in the defence of Damascus. There was little response from the outside world, certainly not from the US president, Barack Obama, who is working hard to distance himself from his comment that the use of "a whole bunch" of chemical weapons would be a "red line".

Meanwhile, in Iraq, hundreds have been killed in bombings this month, with casualty rates approaching those of 2007 when the country was on the brink of civil war. With Iraq weakening and the US disengaged, Turkey has agreed an energy deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government in the north, in defiance of Baghdad and in the teeth of warnings from the US that this will fracture the Iraqi state.

Finally, on Wednesday, Washington issued a demand for Hizbollah fighters to withdraw from Syria. This demand came from the State Department spokesman, a messenger who gets to speak when none of the big hitters in Washington wants to stand up and be counted. It was noted that the statement was not backed up by any threat of action, and thus could safely be ignored.

So what does all this add up to? The clear conclusion is that the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, is growing in confidence. Neither side can prevail. Mr Al Assad is therefore focusing his efforts to consolidate his hold on the capital and a corridor to the coast, including the ports of Lattakia and Tartous and the mountain heartland of his Alawite sect; hence the determination to drive the rebels out of the town of Qusair, close to the border with Lebanon, which occupies a strategic position near the Damascus-Homs-Aleppo highway.

This confidence appears to be shared by Mr Nasrallah, whose men are dying in Qusair. Even though Mr Al Assad may never again rule the whole of the country, he could emerge as the strongest of Syria's warlords. And his backers - Iran and Russia - are far more engaged and single-minded than the western countries that have yet to find reliable and effective "moderates" within the rebels' ranks.

Beyond this clear trend, much that is said has little meaning. The aim of lifting the EU arms embargo is to strike terror into the hearts of the regime and push Mr Al Assad to agree to step down and thus allow the opposition - if it ever unites - to attend the proposed Geneva peace conference this coming month.

But the EU countries are not about to send any weapons any time soon, and even if they do, they are unlikely to be game-changing weapons. Once outside powers become formally engaged, it is hard to stop. Would it be like Iraq? The western powers defended the Kurds from Saddam Hussein for more than a decade until finally George W Bush sent in the troops to finish the job, as he saw it, though in reality he was just writing a new act in the tragedy of Iraq.

More likely, Britain and France want to chivvy Mr Obama into action. But he is no George Bush. For all the media reports about the US preparing to intervene with force, the reality is that Washington does not see any vital national interest in Syria. Domestically, Mr Obama sees only risks from Syrian engagement. The administration is still haunted by the political fallout of the murder in September of Chris Stevens, the US Ambassador to Libya, by gunmen who showed no gratitude for being liberated from Gaddafi's dictatorship.

As for claims by Mr Al Assad that Syria has received the first consignment of S300 anti-aircraft missiles, this raises more questions than answers. Analysts in Moscow did not expect the Kremlin escalating its engagement with the Assad clan so speedily and so dramatically. And it is not clear when the missiles will be integrated into Syria’s anti-aircraft system, or who will operate them.

What we are seeing is secondary powers - Britain, France, Turkey and (though the Kremlin would not appreciate being put in this league) Russia - stepping in to the vacuum left by the US. With Mr Obama sitting out the conflict, these countries have their moment on the stage - Britain and France reliving the 1920s when they ruled the Levant; Russia behaving like a superpower again; and Turkey following its commercial interests in northern Iraq without heed to its old ally.

But what can these countries actually achieve? Medium-sized regional states like Turkey are "explicitly questioning the rule book", says Hugh Pope, a veteran observer of the region for the International Crisis Group. "But they are unable single-handedly to dictate any new rules or diplomatic or military outcomes."

In a word, without Washington, it is a recipe for continuing civil war, with ever more serious impacts on neighbouring countries.



On Twitter: @aphilps