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Syria hits new stage in conflict

The Syrian conflict appeared to enter a new stage last night after a bomb hit the National Security building in Damascus during a meeting of cabinet ministers and security chiefs. Three top security officials were killed in the worst losses for the Assad regime since the increasingly bloody conflict began 16 months ago.  

The explosion came as clashes between the Syrian military and the opposition in the capital city entered their fourth consecutive day. Unconfirmed rumours are proliferating in Syria, among them that the first lady Asma al-Assad is in Russia, that the president Bashar al-Assad has fled Damascus for Latakia (on the coast), and that the army have been issued with gas masks ahead of a possible deployment of chemical weapons.

So is this the beginning of the end for Assad? Western powers certainly hope so. The White House spokesman Jay Carney said that international powers need to "come together to support a transition", while David Cameron said it was time for Assad to go. While western leaders continue their push for a non-military solution – the UN Security Council voted on a resolution imposing sanctions today – commentators across the board have renewed calls for more direct intervention.

There are several key points here. Firstly, what does "intervention"  actually mean? Arming rebel groups? Shelling cities? Imposing a no-fly zone? Would it involve only neighbouring countries like Turkey or the Gulf states, or western powers too? The case for increasing diplomatic pressure is strong, with moves such as sanctions forming an important part of this (although Russia vetoed today's resolution). But the detail of what form further action would take is important, given the complexities of the conflict in Syria.

This leads to the second key question: would intervention help? There are few international bodies that now contest that Assad should step down. His regime has perpetrated atrocities and massacres against its own people and has little legitimacy. But on the other hand, it would be naïve in the extreme to pretend that rebel groups have not committed multiple atrocities of their own – or even that they are unified enough to present a clear opposition. The Syrian National Council, the pro-intervention opposition group, is by no means the only opposition. The National Co-ordination Council opposes Assad but also opposes foreign military intervention.

Thirdly, would intervention stop the violence? The focused, short-term western no-fly in Libya was feted at the time as a new model for liberal intervention – but nearly a year later, the country is anarchically violent and beset by tribal conflicts between armed militia groups. Given the complexity of the situation in Syria, with political loyalties along sectarian lines and a substantial proportion of the people still supporting Assad, military intervention may simply intensify the violence.

The tragedy is that the uprising in Syria has become violent and increasingly militarised. Sending in foreign troops is not going to reverse that. Kofi Annan's plan for an "inclusive Syrian-led peace process"  has been roundly dismissed, but diplomacy remains the most compelling solution. Yemen is a good example here – President Ali Abdullah Saleh stood down as part of a negotiated settlement. Although much of his state apparatus has remained in place, it ended the worst of the violence. The revolution has not achieved its goals yet, but activists see it as a continuous process, now taking the form of political pressure and non-violent protest. Some say that the situation has already gone too far to hope for a purely diplomatic situation, crossing instead into civil war. Yet even if this is the case, unthinkingly throwing foreign troops into the mix is unlikely to stop the terrible loss of life. A negotiated settlement surely remains the best hope for ending the bloodshed in Syria.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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