Diplomacy may yet break Syria’s deadlock, and avoid a military crisis

Abdel Bari Atwan writes: Two weeks ago I met the Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu and we talked about the efficacy of the high-powered Friends of Syria gatherings – the latest of which took place in Tunis last weekend – in finding a solution to the present crisis, compared with that of the Friends of Libya. Davutoglu pointed out that the Friends of Libya had been established after the Nato-led military intervention against Gaddafi. Was Davutoglu implying that there would be a similar intervention in Syria? He declined to answer.

The truth is that there is no consensus because nobody knows what to do about Syria – particularly given the outcome of Nato’s intervention in Libya. The options now are much the same as they were then; the difference is that these days we are more “clear-eyed” about the possible consequences, as Hillary Clinton put it following the Tunis meeting. The accumulated risks associated with each option for intervention – military, political, diplomatic – become more evident as time goes by, and lessen the momentum to act.

Should the international community arm the opposition, as Qatar and Saudi Arabia propose? The problem here is that there is no single, identifiable, unified opposition to negotiate with, let alone arm. The rush to adopt the Libyan Transitional Council as the legitimate opposition to Gaddafi has not resulted in a stable post-revolutionary government, and the Syrian National Council is already split on key issues.

There are several militias apart from the Free Syrian Army: should one or all be armed? Post‑Gaddafi Libya is in disarray with rival heavily-armed militias vying for power. In addition, only a recently emerged splinter group from the Syrian National Council supports arming the resistance – the remainder would not endorse such a move.

Arming the opposition increases the risk of sectarian conflict leading to all-out civil war. Syria is a demographic tinderbox comprising, among others, Kurds, Druze, Christians, Alawites and Arab Sunnis. However, a new leadership drawn from the Sunni majority and antipathetic to Iran would be more useful to the Gulf states and the west than the current (Shia) Alawite regime with its friends in Tehran, Baghdad and Hezbollah.

While I do not doubt that Qatar is acting out of abhorrence for the daily massacres committed by the Assad regime, the emirate has not forgotten Syria’s refusal – under instructions from Moscow – to allow it to build a gas pipeline through its territory to supply Europe.

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