No hope in sight for diplomatic solution to Syria crisis
As Syrian forces take on Idlib, opposition says more soldiers defect and tribal leaders introduce village militias; diplomatic efforts continue as Arab and Russian foreign ministers meet and Assad talks to UN envoy Kofi Annan.
After the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr turned into a damaged "Museum Site" whose main visitors are the diplomatic guests of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Syrian army began a battle in the northern city of Idlib overnight Friday. According to sources in the opposition, the city has been bombarded with tanks and cannons, while numerous Syrian forces plan on overtaking the city, which has, in the past months, turned into the center of Syrian resistance.
Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army reported Saturday that it had shot down a Syrian army helicopter and that 30 soldiers and officers defected that day along with equipment including tanks. Alongside the tough fighting in Daraa and the massive spread of forces in the capital Damascus, Syria is turning into a war state whose regime is trying to reclaim it.
While the Syrian regime pursues that goal, American and Arabic diplomats are engaged in an uphill battle, without any ability to reach a decision or convince Syrian leaders to allow humanitarian aid into the state. On Friday, the Americans announced their pessimism on the chances of reaching a decision at the United Nations Security Council that would force Syria into allowing a convoy of humanitarian aid. The main challenge is Russia's stance, which requires the Syrian and opposition forces share an equal responsibility to end the fighting.
Also on Saturday, the Arab League began a special meeting in Cairo, aimed at reaching a common stance on recognizing the Syrian opposition as the only representative of the Syrian people, arming the opposition, and imposing additional sanctions on the Syrian regime. The gaps are greatest between Egypt - who opposes arming the opposition - and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait - who support military aid for the opposition, and even believe that "international Arabic forces should be launched in Syria," as Qatar's prime minister said.
Early Saturday afternoon, the Arabic foreign ministers heard the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who joined the meeting, and will attempt to convince him to change Russia's stance on Syria. But they are likely to be disappointed, for Russia has said she will not change her pro-Assad stance and the most it would agree to support is humanitarian aid to civilians and refugees that escaped bombarded cities. In the meeting today, Lavrov said Russia supports the Syrian peoples' demand for democracy, but his words made no indication of how, on a practical level, Russia intends to support the Syrian people in achieving that democratic goal.
Lavrov, who expressed firm opposition to military intervention in Syria, spoke of Russian mediation which intends to stop the violence, and explained that "I am not defending any regime, rather international law." He explained that Russia exercised its veto power at the UN Security Council because the resolution demanded Syrian forces cease the violence, without making the same demand of opposition forces. It is unlikely that that explanation will convince the majority of Arab states or the Syrian opposition, who currently sees Russia as "an enemy of Arab interests." Lavrov also explained that Russia did not participate in the Friends of Syria meeting that took place in Tunisia since Syria did not invite her to participate.
Lavrov's remarks were met with a sharp response by Qatar's Foreign Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, who defines the events in Syria as "systematic annihilation of citizens." He said that after such a great number of casualties it is inappropriate to only speak of a cease fire, but that a full, and not partial, state program must be adopted, and that those acting against the regime are not "armed gangs" rather citizens demanding freedom. The Qatari foreign minister did not detail what a "full state solution" would entail, but from his words it was clear the outcome of such a solution would be to satisfy the demands of the Syrian people, that is, ousting the regime.
Also on Saturday, UN special envoy to Syria Kofi Annan met Assad in Damascus with three key proposals: the immediate end to violence on all sides, opening a dialogue between the regime to the opposition forces, and opening a path for humanitarian aid. Prior to their meeting, Annan had already met the decisive stance of the Syrian National Council, the largest of the Syrian opposition groups, whose head, Burhan Ghalioun, declared the opposition refuses to engage in any dialogue with the Syrian regime until Assad is no longer in power. Ghalioun, who changed his stance on the uprising from one that denounces the use of violence, to one that supports military organization to fight government troops. He announced on Friday that the Syrian opposition had already begun receiving monetary donations from Arab states, and that it is acting now to acquire quality weapons that will help it fight the Syrian army.
In their meeting, Assad told Annan his country was ready for "any honest effort" to end the year of unrest, but blamed "terrorist groups" for blocking a solution, the state news agency said. "Syria is ready to make a success of any honest effort to find a solution for the events it is witnessing," SANA quoted Assad as saying. "No political dialogue or political activity can succeed while there are armed terrorist groups operating and spreading chaos and instability."
Meanwhile, tribal leaders announced a decision to establish tribal militias in the villages surrounding embattled cities, and that they are coordinating their activities with the Free Syrian Army. However, there is a concern that a multiplicity of militias and unofficial army forces is likely to impede on the abilities to coordinate a military campaign against the regime, and even cause an internal war between unofficial forces, along the lines of what took place in Libya and Iraq.