Syria: staring into a sectarian abyss | Editorial

The bloodiest of the uprisings of the Arab spring is set to get bloodier still

International efforts to end the fighting in Syria are as logjammed as the conflict itself. Kofi Annan, the UN and Arab League special envoy, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and Zhang Ming, the Chinese assistant foreign minister, will all be in the region today battling over competing formulas for peace talks, which the opposition Syrian National Council have a priori rejected. An informal meeting of EU foreign ministers on Friday attempted to draw comfort from a clutch of Syrian defections – two army generals, a colonel and two sergeants followed the example of a senior oil ministry official. Syria’s economy is plunging and businessmen are taking large losses. The defections could be the start of a flood, but as things stand it would be safer to assume that the regime is intact, and after pulverising the Homs district of Baba Amr, the army will now switch its attentions to Idlib.

The continuing army offensive and the reluctance of the regime to permit unhindered humanitarian access to the worst-hit areas begs the most important question: even if a UN resolution could be devised to bridge the gap between the US, France and Britain on one side and Russia and China on the other – on key issues such as the responsibility for violence, promoting a political transition, and ending impunity from prosecution – what real motive would Assad have to negotiate? He would have plenty of interest in playing for time, as he has done on many occasions before, particularly with Turkey. But unless his situation deteriorates markedly, as it may yet do so with more defections, the bloodiest of the uprisings of the Arab spring is set to get bloodier still.

Rejecting talks before Annan even hits the ground in Damascus, the SNC is understandably relectant to engage with Assad. Too much innocent blood has flowed since this started a year ago, and Assad has lost control both of the economy and society. But the SNC has no strategy, other than calling for a foreign intervention which will never come. Still less does it have a political programme. If the regime does not crumble and the army continues its bombardment of towns and cities under rebel control, the SNC has to develop a political plan – what it wants, and how it is going to achieve it – even if it is negotiated through proxies. At the moment they are playing exclusively to the regime’s strengths, which are all military.

Everyone involved with Syria faces a simple choice: either it becomes an international battleground, a proxy war of competing regional powers, and a civil war which becomes more sectarian as time goes on; or a ceasefire will have to be obtained through negotiation. The latter option indeed carries the risk of cementing the Assad regime in place, and is deeply obnoxious to large sections of the population who are in no mood to reconcile themselves to people who have behaved with such brutality. But it may yet turn out to be the best of a series of bad options. If the regime does not collapse under its own weight, it may be the only one facing the opposition. That ceasefire will only be obtained by Syria’s neighbours and regional powers – Turkey, Iran, Egypt and the Arab League.

They themselves are deeply divided. Saudi Arabia is playing a double game and giving its people an openly contradictory message. In politically scripted sermons at evening prayers, the Saudis are simultaneously posing as the protectors of the Sunnis against a minority Shia regime; and they are telling their people that Syria is what happens when people turn on their rulers. The Saudis are both stoking the rebellion in Syria and attempting to erect a firewall against a similar thing happening at home. The language of these sermons is unashamedly sectarian, depicting Sunnis as victims of Shias and their sponsor Iran. They are the clearest sign yet of the abyss down which Syria is staring. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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