LONDON (Reuters) - “World, please help us!” has been a refrain of Syrians under siege by their own government in Homs, Deraa and other cities.
So far, though, it is probably President Bashar al-Assad who has had more outside assistance, highlighting how a complex web of regional and global interests is stalemated over Syria, where a complex social mix is shaping up for a long confrontation.
The bombardment of Homs this month prompted talk of Syria’s “Benghazi moment” - when Western, and Arab, powers would feel compelled to intervene as they did in Libya last March, when Muammar Gaddafi’s forces closed in on the rebel stronghold.
That moment, though, may have passed for now. Russia and China have vetoed a Libya-style U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Assad. Homs looks increasingly like a forlorn Sarajevo, Syria like a Balkan riddle, destined to work out bloody internal differences while the confrontation among external forces hinder swift victory for either side.
That the anti-Assad rebels, themselves a fractious bunch, look to support ranging from Western democrats to Arab monarchs, from Turkey to al Qaeda, is surely a mark of this complexity - as is the backing Assad can count on from the clerical rulers of Iran and avowedly secular leaders in the Kremlin and Beijing.
The numbers in last week’s 137-to-12 vote in the U.N. General Assembly condemning Assad were impressive, including the likes of emerging powers India and Brazil and 19 Arab League states out of 22. But the names against, notably Russia, China and Iran, are telling.
The veto seems to have emboldened Assad to step up his raids and shelling of opposition strongholds, prompting the United States to suggest it was open to eventually arming the Syrian opposition. It said that if a political solution to the crisis was impossible it might have to consider other options.
A “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunis on Friday will gather Western and Arab leaders with Assad’s opponents. But Russia has rejected any talks that do not include the Syrian government. It supports Assad’s referendum on reform, to be held on Sunday. The opposition and their foreign backers call that vote a joke.
China, too, has yet to accept an invitation to Tunis and says it wants all sides to stop fighting and open negotiations.
For many, Syria’s internal conflict is turning into a proxy war between rival international groupings, between Sunni and Shi‘ite Muslims in the Middle East and, globally, along Cold War lines between democracies and authoritarian leaders.
The weapons range from sanctions, economic and political, to arms shipments, overt and covert, for rival sides. In time, some troops, perhaps branded peacekeepers, might join the discreet advisers, spies and secret forces who may already be in action.
Within Syria, ranged against Assad are large segments of the 23-million population. They include liberal-minded pro-democracy activists, many of them young and inspired by fellow Arabs who rose up in Egypt and elsewhere. But many in the Sunni Muslim majority, from middling urbanites to the rural and suburban poor, are also fed up with corruption and a growing wealth gap.
And Sunni Islamists, long suppressed, are capitalizing on deep popular resentments after decades of domination by Assad’s Alawite religious minority, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam.
As some in the opposition take up arms - seized from troops, brought by soldiers deserting to the rebel side or smuggled in from increasingly compliant foreign allies - Assad can still count on a heavy military advantage, counting tens of thousands of troops with thousands of tanks and heavy weapons. Russia, Iran and others have been supplying more, throughout the revolt.
Fear of the unknown, of chaos or of a takeover by hardline Islamists among the 70 percent Sunni Arab majority means not just the Alawite 10 percent, but also substantial communities of Christians, Kurds, Druze and other religious or ethnic minorities, as well as the urban, Sunni middle classes have been slow to turn against Assad, giving him a wider base of support.
Many in the minorities, with grievances against the Assads, or hurt by economic sanctions that are crippling the economy, or appalled at the descent into bloodshed or simply hedging their bets, have moved into opposition. Yet many, too, feel that their communities have much to lose from overturning the status quo.
The regular army and security forces number officially some 400,000. Largely led by Alawites, the loyalty of many conscripts may be questionable. But Assad has also yet to deploy much of his heaviest firepower, including the air force.
Alongside the regular forces, the authorities have armed groups known as ‘shabbiha’ - ‘ghosts’ in Arabic - a name derived from gangsters operating in the Alawite areas of western Syria. These have been blamed for sectarian attacks on Sunnis, just as militant Islamists are accused of attacks on Alawite targets.
Beyond his borders, Assad is also not without allies. The Syrian president, who inherited power from his father 12 years ago, has aligned himself firmly on one side of the Middle East’s deepening split between Sunni and Shi‘ite Muslim powers.
While religion has played little part in the calculation of the Assad clan in its four decades in power, Syria has stood out among Arab states by keeping close to non-Arab, Shi‘ite Iran.
Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, sided with Iran’s clergy against his Iraqi neighbor, Saddam Hussein, despite their common branding as Baathist Arab nationalists, during the war of the 1980s.
That earned the Assads the abiding mistrust of many Sunnis, but has given Bashar the advantage of quiet support now from some in Baghdad, where the U.S. overthrow of Saddam brought Iranian-allied leaders from Iraq’s Shi‘ite majority to the fore.
At the same time, Iraqi officials say, Sunni militants battle-hardened from years of sectarian conflict have been flitting across into Syria - reversing a border flow which once brought Syrian and other hardliners in to fight U.S. forces.
This month al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri urged Sunni Muslims across the region to help Syrians topple Assad. Short on anti-tank rockets, however, or the kind of explosives with which to make improvised bombs, their challenge to Assad is limited.
At the level of governments, most of the Arab League - even those monarchs and autocrats who have watched the Arab Spring with alarm and have no relish for supporting popular uprisings - has lined up against Assad. So has one of the most influential voices of the Sunni clergy, Cairo’s al-Azhar institution.
Qatar, the tiny, gas-powered Gulf emirate with regional power ambitions, has been lobbying for a threat of military action in Syria, at least in the form of “peacekeeping” troops - a move few others seem willing to risk for the time being.
As in Libya, where Qatar’s Al Jazeera television station was a vocal critic of Gaddafi before the emir dispatched military hardware and, in time, special forces on the ground, Syria, too, has been alive with rumors of Qatari weapons, even a small, secret presence, though there is no evidence for that yet.
Wealthier still, Saudi Arabia’s rulers, closely in tune with the austere Wahhabi school of Sunni religious thought, would be glad to see their Iranian regional rival, already under pressure from Western sanctions and threats of action against its nuclear programme, thwarted by the fall of its main Arab ally, Assad.
Direct Saudi involvement beyond diplomatic and, possibly, material support for the opposition seems unlikely in Syria. But its confrontation with Iran has taken visible form lately in the shape of Saudi troops sent in to neighboring Bahrain to bolster the island’s Sunni monarchy against an uprising among the majority Shi‘ite population for which Riyadh has blamed Iran.
Iran’s various leaders, on the other hand, while appearing to distance themselves somewhat from Assad’s violence - and his unpopularity at home and abroad - seem unlikely to abandon their long-time ally, particularly at a time when they, too, feel threatened by popular frustrations at home and pressure abroad.
Western adversaries of Iran have accused it of supplying not just military equipment but electronic surveillance and other tools developed to crack down on dissidents using the Internet and mobile phones. Assad’s enemies accuse him of using Iranian specialists to help against the revolt and rebels say they have captured a handful of Iranian military personnel inside Syria.
There are suggestions that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards - and their Lebanese allies in Hezbollah - may have provided some of the sharpshooters picking people off on the streets of Homs.
This week, two Iranian warships docked at a Syrian port in what looked like a show of military support, according to Iran’s Press TV. The Pentagon said it had no indication the ships had docked.
Directly on his eastern and western borders, Assad also has friendlier faces - Iraq’s Shi‘ite-led government is at least ambivalent, while in Lebanon, where Hezbollah has emerged as a dominant force in the years since Assad pulled Syrian troops out of his smaller neighbor, Assad has clear support.
Lebanon stood out by opposing an Arab League resolution in November that called for Assad to step aside. In that vote, Iraq abstained. Last week at the United Nations, as pressure mounted, Iraq voted against Assad, while Lebanon was among abstainers.
To the south, Jordan, like the Gulf powers another Western-allied Sunni monarchy, has come out publicly against Assad. But with concerns for its own stability, it seems unlikely to take a strong lead in backing the rebels beyond accepting refugees.
The other southern neighbor Israel, which has occupied the Golan Heights since seizing them from Syria in the war of 1967, has been unenthusiastic about the possible chaos or Islamist takeover that might follow a departure of its old, but generally subdued, enemy, the Assad administration.
However, it appears to have concluded it cannot survive, and is planning for change, as well as an influx of refugees heading for the Golan, which is home notably to communities of Druze.
In a turn that may demonstrate a shifting balance of power in the region, the Palestinians’ Sunni Islamist movement Hamas has distanced itself from Assad, moving their leader out of Damascus and, after two decades of backing from Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, it is sounding out support from Sunni Qatar.
Egypt, the most populous Arab state, where the Sunni Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood now dominate a parliament elected after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last year, is also looking kindly on its fellow Brotherhood followers in Syria.
Assad’s northern neighbor, Turkey, a Muslim NATO member whose leadership comes from a Sunni Islamist background, has also abandoned him, condemning a former friend and giving refuge to rebel commanders of the Free Syrian Army.
Ankara is worried a flood of refugees could destabilize the border. It has raised the possibility of creating safe areas in Syria to protect civilians, and even of intervening militarily if there were massacres in cities. Any action, though, officials say, would only be undertaken with some form of international mandate, including support from Arab and Western allies.
Friday’s meeting in Tunis, at which Turkey hopes to take a lead after being slow off the mark to join NATO allies against Gaddafi, may offer clues as to how far Ankara is prepared to go.
However impressive the anti-Assad bloc may be, a world power stand-off in the Middle East is becoming more defined and recalls the days of the Cold War, when Assad’s father used a firm alliance with the Soviet Union against the United States to arm himself heavily against enemies internal and external.
Nostalgia may play little part in Moscow’s strategy today, but Syria hosting Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base, at Tartous, and the possibility of using the Syrian conflict to reassert itself as a diplomatic player in the region means that Moscow shows little sign of siding quickly with the West.
China, too, as seen in its sympathetic ear for Iran’s leaders, has a growing interest, as an increasingly demanding consumer of energy, in asserting itself in the Middle East.
And, like Russia, Beijing has shown a commitment to blocking moves at the United Nations which, seen across the desks of leaders whose power rests as much on state control as popular choice, appears to give foreign powers a say in who rules.
Taken aback by the way a U.N. Security Council resolution which they failed to veto led to the Western military campaign that helped topple Colonel Gaddafi, Russia and China have made clear they will not allow any new move to give a license for “regime change” in the name of Western-inspired democracy.
This week, Beijing’s People’s Daily told the West its calls for Assad to quit could provoke “large-scale civil war”.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin, campaigning to become president again in an election he is sure to win next month, has made a point of condemning as a “culture of violence” the temptation among Western governments to intervene militarily abroad.
Having first entered the Kremlin 12 years ago on the back of the bombardment of a Russian city, Grozny, that was in the hands, as he saw it, of Wahabbi Islamist rebels, Putin has little reason to condemn Assad’s assaults on Homs or Deraa.
Syrian defectors, rebel forces, Russian analysts and international shipping data all indicate that Russia continues regular supplies of heavy armaments to the Syrian government - as it is legally entitled to do in the absence of any embargo.
While Iranian and Chinese arms form substantial parts of Assad’s stocks - only a small proportion of which have yet been expended - Russia may account for nearly all of the newer, and more high-performance, equipment reaching Syria, both directly from Russian state-run firms and via middlemen, analysts say.
As in the Balkans, where Western backing for, say, Kosovo separatists, against Moscow’s ally Serbia raised tensions to levels rarely seen since the Cold War, this places Moscow in direct confrontation with leaders in Europe and Washington.
In France, the former colonial power which drew modern Syria’s borders, President Nicolas Sarkozy is highlighting his leading role in the Libyan war as he fights a tough campaign for re-election. He has been vocal in condemning Assad and supporting the disparate, often fractious, Syrian opposition.
The United States, Britain and others have also pulled no punches verbally to denounce the “brutal dictator” Assad.
While British Prime Minister David Cameron has relished some of the credit for overthrowing Gaddafi, unlike Sarkozy and U.S. President Barack Obama, he does not face an election this year.
Some of Obama’s Republican opponents in the Senate have already explicitly called for Washington to help arm the rebels, if only through Arab allies.
In a shift of emphasis, U.S. officials on Tuesday signaled that if Assad did not embrace a political solution to ease him from power the United States might have to consider alternatives to its policy against arming the opposition.
As in the Balkans, as over Iran, the realpolitik of a global power confrontation puts Syria in a very different situation from Libya, a geographically isolated, thinly populated, socially homogeneous state whose ruler’s talent for shifting foreign alliances had deserted him and left him vulnerable.
Syria’s population is four times that of Libya, jammed in to a tenth of the territory. Its population is similar to that of the former Yugoslavia or Iraq, yet it is smaller than either, about the size of Florida. It is socially diverse, packed into fast-growing cities and across well-peopled farm-belts.
It is the sort of space where, even were the opposition to coalesce as Libyans did into a greater semblance of a rebel army, there would, unlike in Libya, be little chance for clear frontlines along which foreign powers might deploy air power and every likelihood of bloody, confused civil war, as in Bosnia.
So when Syrians appeal to “the world” for help, they must know that world appears as divided as Syria itself. Assad can go on using those divisions - at home and across the Middle East and globally - to hold his ground, at least for now.
Writing by Alastair Macdonald, editing by Peter Millership