Unrest in Syria has been ongoing for the past 13 months. It was initiated by 15 kids in the southwestern city of Deraa, who were inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings and openly mocked the regime by creatively expressing their dissent. When these kids were arrested and tortured, anti-regime demonstrations were triggered. Protests spread from Deraa to Damascus, Homs, Homa and other cities. Since then, the regime has stepped up its repression, increasingly targeting villages that host protesters and armed fighters. There have been approximately 9,000 casualties, 200,000 people are displaced within the country and almost 40,000 have escaped to neighbouring countries – mainly Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Two critical junctures in particular are key to understanding the diplomatic stalemate. The resulting choices shed light on both the humanitarian consequences and the regional and international power politics that played out.
The first of these junctures occurred last summer, when the regime’s actions towards the uprisings turned increasingly violent and bloody. The international community started to divide itself among different interpretations of the events on the ground and their implications. While Moscow deplored all solutions ignoring an involvement of the regime and of Alawites in general, the Gulf states started to envisage ways to support the Syrian opposition. European and US declaratory policies became assertive but toothless. Some of the difficulties in adopting a clear-cut stance were linked to the status of the Syrian opposition – which started as civic uprisings, then turned into militarized forms of resistance and eventually, as we see now, paved the way for guerrilla warfare dynamics. Parts of the opposition coalesced around the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which however falls short of representing a unified front of opposition against the regime. Also, minorities, such as Alawites, Druzes, Christians and Kurds failed to be integrated into the Syrian National Council (SNC) – the political body supposed to represent the opposition. This led many to suspect that sectarian logics would dictate the evolution of the opposition, something which significantly diminished the SNC and FSA appeal and atout. More broadly, many in Western capitals shared the Russian fear that a post-Assad Syria would become a buffer zone between regional powers (Iran on the one hand and Saudi Arabia on the other), characterized by persistent internal instability, with potential devastating regional spill-over effects.
The second juncture happened in New York last February at the UN Security Council. The US and Europe put forward a resolution on Syria, supported by the Arab League, guided by Qatar. The idea was to try to broker a Yemeni solution with the Assad regime, devising an acceptable exit strategy for the Assads.