A matter of time
The nearer Bashar Al-Assad's regime gets to its end the more dangerous Syria becomes, writes Graham Usher at the United Nations
As the Syrian regime fights for its life in Aleppo, Western states and their regional allies are preparing for the day after the end of President Bashar Al-Assad. Two weeks ago a Russian and Chinese veto denied the UN Security Council even the threat of financial sanctions against his government. Yet, despite this, the United States, Turkey and others are pressing ahead with a political transition without Al-Assad or what remains of his regime.
It was to prevent such a radical shift in the regional balance of power that Russia and China made their vetoes, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. "We [were] blocking only the attempt to allow people to support one side in an internal conflict through a UN Security Council resolution."
If so, Russia and China blocked the resolution but not the outcome. Even those most associated with special envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan (which was the core of the vetoed resolution) have now thrown in their lot with the rebels.
"In my opinion it is only a matter of time before a regime that is using such heavy military power and disproportional violence against a civilian population is going to fall," said Major General Robert Mood, the former head of the UN observer mission in Syria. He also warned that the end of Al-Assad would not necessarily mean the end of the Syrian civil war.
Diplomatically of course there is reluctance at the UN to admit the end of the Annan plan for a political transition to a democratic government, if only because there's nothing to replace it. The Arab group is still touting it as the basis of a new General Assembly resolution submitted by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It cannot be vetoed but, unlike Security Council resolutions, is non-binding. It is expected to be passed by a large majority in the 193 member assembly.
You will find similar consensus against any direct UN military intervention in the Syrian crisis, especially among the five permanent members. Not even the US and France -- the two most vocal regime-changers -- have any desire to repeat the Iraq or Algerian experience. Rather Syria is seen as a geopolitical keystone that holds up a delicate regional architecture of sect, ethnicity, nations and tribes. One jolt could bring the whole house down, with the debris shaking Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, the occupied territories and Israel. And the closer the Syrian regime gets to implosion the more prone it is to jolts.
There are three things UN diplomats and observers most fear should Syria disintegrate as a state. One is the fate of the regime's chemical weapons. Few think it would use them in a blaze of self-destruction. But -- as the regime has warned -- they could be mobilised to deter "external aggression". The problem is that when you define all rebel groups as "agents of foreign powers" the distinction between an internal and external foe becomes a fine one.
One thing, however, is clear: should Syria transfer any chemical or biological warheads to the Lebanese Hizbullah movement Israel has signaled it would intervene militarily. Few think it bluffing.
Second, analysts accept that at a certain point the regime is going to give up trying to hold hostile cities like Damascus and Aleppo. It may opt instead to carve out an Alawite enclave. There are signs the process may have already started, with the army and Shabiha militia ethnically cleansing Sunni areas to secure Alawite villages near Homs as well as on the approaches to the Alawite mountain heartland on the Mediterranean coast. Thousands have been displaced and hundreds killed.
Yet any decision to create a separate Alawite state within the larger Syrian one would mean a full-blown sectarian war, triggering massive refugee flights into neighboring countries, as well as safe zones in Syria. The pressure on the world -- and especially the UN -- to act would be enormous.
Thirdly, wherever the regime retreats, Sunni opposition groups are likely to advance. This seems to be the vision of jihadi wing of the resistance which sees north-eastern Syria as the territorial base they tried and failed to secure in north western Iraq. Any Sunni Islamist resurgence of this order could have a domino effect in Iraq and Lebanon. It would also be met by Iranian and Hizbullah resistance: moving to protect Shia Muslims and Alawites against what would be deemed mortal ideological enemies. Syria's degeneration from a state into a Lebanon-like sectarian war would be complete.
Weapons of Mass Destruction, refugee flows and civil wars in disintegrating states may all require international intervention or at least help. But the UN has proven to be pretty ineffectual when it comes to Syria. And nation states -- regional and otherwise -- prefer to act through proxies. So far most have managed to avoid being sucked into the Syria maelstrom. But that is unlikely to last.
Last weekend a border land next to Turkey but inside Syria was taken over by Syrian Kurdish militants, allied to the PKK, the Turkish Kurdish group that has spent years fighting Ankara. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was asked whether Turkey would strike inside Syria if the PKK or its allies started to use Syria as a base. "That's not even a matter of discussion," he said. "It's a given".