x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

The last man standing may decide Syria's path

For all of the rhetoric, Syria's ruling forces and masses of protesters are further from a solution to the country's violence and bloodshed than ever. Is the only answer, as one political figure bemoans, that one side will have to win and one lose, to the great detriment of the nation?

DAMASCUS // Syria's acceptance of Arab League observers on Monday was a rare diplomatic breakthrough in a nine-month uprising that has been heavy on bloodshed and rhetoric, but thin on deals.

Yet before the ink was dry on the Arab League's protocol, it was already overshadowed by events on the ground and a looming sense that it was too little, too late.

Even as the announcement was made that Damascus had finally decided to let independent monitors in, violence was worsening, further undermining the accord the observers are supposed to oversee.

Activists said more than 100 people were killed on Monday by security services - a death toll that, if accurate, makes the day of diplomatic triumph one of the bloodiest since the revolt began in March.

Thirty-three more civilians were yesterday reported killed by the security forces.

The two-day death count is a stark indication of how far Syria stands from a peaceful settlement.

"Just as the first protests were starting in March, I told a regime official that they had better begin making serious political reforms very quickly because the people were about to boil over," a seasoned activist said yesterday.

The official laughed off the suggestion, the activist said, promising that it would all be over in 10 days.

This week, the two men spoke again and the activist reminded the official of his prediction. Rather than bombast, the response was despairing.

"Now the situation is beyond my control and it's beyond yours as well," he cited the official as saying.

Out of control is probably an apt description for the situation Syria faces. Troops are deployed across much of the country; tanks are on city streets; detention facilities have overflowed, and so has the public's anger.

The widespread, fierce fighting between dissident soldiers and loyalist forces is escalating, with daily body counts of 10, 20, 30 or more.

Syria's position at the centre of the Middle East's ethnic, sectarian and historical divisions only makes a solution all the more elusive. The severity of the situation is magnified by the competing interests of outside actors - the US, Iran, Russia and the Gulf countries.

A feeling that things are slipping beyond the point at which the disaster of a civil war, or even a wider regional conflict, can be averted has been steadily growing.

This month a group of respected and influential opposition figures met a senior regime official, compromising their own decision not to talk while a security crackdown continues, to see if they could find a last-minute negotiated exit to the crisis.

An activist said the delegation proposed reining in street demonstrations in exchange for the immediate release of political prisoners.

The group would also put its credibility on the line by supporting the president, Bashar Al Assad, to stay in office for a transitional period leading to sweeping reforms and free presidential elections.

"The basic idea was that it would be best for everyone if a political arrangement can be made while we all still have some influence over events - before events take over completely and sweep us all away," the activist said.

It was flatly rejected, with the official demanding a complete halt to protests before soldiers would be pulled off the streets and Syria returned to its pre-uprising status.

"That's how far apart the sides are, further away than ever," the activist said. "We are falling into war. Actually, it's already a war in a lot of places and its going to get worse from now on."

Just as the authorities rejected that compromise, most protesters would almost certainly have refused it.

Early in the uprising, demonstrators were calling for freedom and dignity, not for Mr Al Assad to stand down. Now they want him gone, the security apparatus that supports him wiped away and the autocratic system of governance replaced by democracy.

With more than 5,000 civilians and defecting soldiers killed by security services by the UN's latest count, and some 1,000 security personnel killed by insurgents according to the Syrian authorities, there is no mood for compromise on either side.

Mr Al Assad yesterday announced death sentences would be given to anyone caught supplying weapons to the "terrorists" his regime says it is fighting, while rebel soldiers have been calling for the West to give them munitions. Not the stuff of compromise.

"There is no solution that is halfway between the regime and the protesters," said an established Syrian political figure.

"One side will have to defeat the other. One side will win; one will lose. That is the only solution and it will cost Syria very dearly."

psands@thenational.ae