LONDON (Reuters) - There are few signs diplomacy can stem Syria’s worsening conflict, leaving Western leaders - and even more so their Arab and Turkish allies - pushed ever further towards backing Bashar al-Assad’s ouster by force.
In Geneva on Saturday, world powers attempted a vague show of unity by committing to support for a transitional government. But diplomats led by United Nations envoy Kofi Annan failed to bridge differences between the West and Russia - backed by China - on whether or not that meant that Syria’s president must go.
In any case, neither Assad’s government nor his various opponents have shown great interest in such an accord. Instead, both sides look to be digging in for a long, winner-takes-all struggle, ramping up the violence and turning to foreign sponsors in a confrontation that could last months, or years.
A meeting in Paris this coming Friday of the loose alliance known as the Friends of Syria is likely see the United States in particular come under greater pressure from Turkey and the Syrian opposition’s Arab allies - principally Saudi Arabia and the Gulf state of Qatar - to increase its help for the rebels.
Washington has long worried about the wisdom of backing Syria’s opposition, which it sees as ill-organized, disparate and much too close to al Qaeda-linked militants. It has limited aid to “non-lethal” equipment, such as radios. And, in an election year, the White House is anxious to avoid anything that may look like an Afghan-style, open-ended military intervention.
Yet it also acknowledges that some of its allies have opted to get more involved in actively support the rebel campaign.
“We’re concerned about pouring more weapons into an already over-militarized situation,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Monday. “We’ve made our decision.
“Other countries are making other decisions. Our goal now is trying to stay coordinated.”
Though public details on aid to the rebels are scant, U.S. officials say Saudi- and Qatari-funded weaponry is finding its way, mostly via Lebanon, into Syria, to be used against Assad, whose Alawite religion and alliance with Shi’ite Iran distance him from the Sunni Muslims who run most other Arab states.
Some fear foreign powers may simply be making things worse.
“The unfortunate truth is that it’s a very difficult situation and it’s hard to know where to go from here,” said Ari Ratner, a former State Department Middle East adviser to the Obama Administration and now a fellow at the Truman Project on National Security. “Other countries are being dragged into a proxy war ... which may in itself help perpetuate the violence.”
On Monday, U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay complained both sides were receiving more and more weapons, creating more violence - though she did not say who was sending them. Assad has bought much of his weaponry from longstanding ally Russia.
The Western powers remain publicly committed to other tools to weaken Assad’s grip on power - primarily financial sanctions.
U.S. officials say they hope Syria’s opposition will endorse the Geneva plan for sharing power with Assad loyalists when they meet in Paris on Friday, though for now opposition spokesman have been asking instead for weapons. Washington has flatly refused, although it says it cannot stop others from offering.
Compared to Assad’s forces - increasingly using not just tanks and armored vehicles but also artillery and attack helicopters - the Free Syrian Army remains desperately underequipped, capable of little more than hit and run attacks.
While they have fought on for months in pockets such as Homs, where they benefit from weapons smuggled across the border from Lebanon, they can still barely hold ground. Nor do they have many military options when government forces withdraw from opposition areas only to then pound them with artillery shells supplied from either Russia or Iran.
Yet for all the concern about contributing to further bloodshed, some who wish to see Assad gone see arming the rebels as a better option than simply waiting, or than any form of direct Libya-style campaign committing warplanes or even troops.
Turkish action in the past week - following the shooting down of a Turkish reconnaissance jet by Syrian air defenses - may be the clearest example yet of foreign action to redraw the lines of battle in favor of the rebels.
Last week, Turkey moved heavy artillery and anti-aircraft missiles up to its border with Syria, publicly warning Damascus that any forces which approached Turkish territory might be liable to attack.
The Assad government looks to have made occasional attempts to test Turkey’s resolve, but with Ankara scrambling fighter jets several times after Syrian helicopters approached its airspace, they have begun to pull forces back.
A Reuters correspondent of the border said that it appeared Assad’s ground forces had withdrawn some 30 km (20 miles) back into their own territory, although they were shelling presumed opposition areas only 8 km (5 miles) from the Turkish border.
Some opposition activists complain the Turkish action has actually made things worse, as areas once garrisoned with Syrian troops are now simply being bombarded.
Still, it has created something of a de facto buffer zone, increasing the freedom to maneuver of rebel fighters already operating from Turkey. With Syrian aircraft also likely to try to avoid attracting Turkish fire, some analysts say a de facto no-fly zone may also now effectively exist over the area.
Having sheltered leaders of the Free Syrian Army and allowed them to operate from its territory for months, Ankara now seems signaling much clearer support for the opposition.
“What we now have today is a regime who has strayed so far away from a basic sense of rationality,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu told a Syrian opposition meeting in Cairo on Monday.
“The only interlocutor for Turkey in Syria is now the Syrian people, ... that is the Syrian opposition, which means you.”
That seems likely to mean that Ankara will let the Gulf Arab states increase shipments of military supplies to FSA forces based in Turkey. For the opposition, they are sorely needed.
Western intelligence and special forces operatives already believed to be operating in Turkey may also be pressured to provide much greater support. So far, officials in Washington in particular say their primary task has been less to assist the rebels and much more to find out who they are and whether it might ever be safe to work with them more closely.
The uncertainties of taking action compare to an apparently growing certainty that diplomacy is making little progress.
“The wheels clearly are going in circles without moving forward,” said Hayat Alvi, lecturer in Middle Eastern studies at the U.S. Naval War College. “The proof is the Assad regime’s continuous acts of violence against the Syrian people, even while the diplomatic wheels have been turning.
“That will likely be the scenario for months to come.”
Western officials also appear to be shelving ambitions of persuading Vladimir Putin to abandon Assad. Having repeatedly embarrassed themselves by briefing that a major change in the Russian position was imminent, there seems a growing acceptance that - for now at least - it may simply not happen.
Having agreed not to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution that led to the Western-backed overthrow of Libya’s leader last year, Russia and China show no sign of letting the same thing happen again in Syria - particularly at a time when both accuse the West of encouraging their own domestic opponents.
“There ... is the glaring fact that Russia and Western and Arab powers still do not see eye to eye and cannot agree to the details of a power-sharing agreement, which diminishes the pressure in Damascus,” says Anthony Skinner, head of Middle East and North Africa at political risk consultancy Maplecroft.
“These diplomatic efforts ... are on par to trying to weave a fleece from disintegrating threads.”
In the short term, that disintegration could well continue.
On Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that if other world powers were truly committed to the pro-opposition Friends of Syria, “we would then be in a position where we couldn’t agree on anything”.
In the long run, however, diplomats widely believe Assad cannot survive the array of forces against him - particularly his own people. Those from the Sunni majority now protesting or fighting know that if they lose and he reasserts his power, the crackdown will likely be devastatingly savage.
The Alawite minority who make up much of the elite of politics and the armed forces, meanwhile, will also fear the consequences of defeat. But they may ultimately decide that their best chance of survival involves ditching their leader.
When or if that happens, the diplomatic channels may reopen. In the meantime, Western powers are left wondering whether their meeting in Geneva was even worth the airfare.
“It’s hard to say that it will ultimately make any difference,” said Ratner at Truman Foundation.
“There is an advantage to keeping talking with the Russians and Chinese to keep diplomatic options open. But now I don’t think there is much hope for an international agreement that resolves the situation.”
Editing by Alastair Macdonald