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Analysis: Diplomacy all but doomed in Syria crisis

Published: March 13, 2012 | 8:57 am
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BEIRUT — As the fighting in Syria grows deadlier by the day, U.N. envoy Kofi Annan’s calls for dialogue sound woefully out of touch to the government and to the opposition, who appear united only in the fact that they see no point in talking to each other.

For now, both sides believe they are making gains, making a negotiated solution all but out of the question.

“It seems (Annan) lives on Mars,” Mohammad Saeed, an activist in the Damascus suburb of Douma, told The Associated Press during the weekend visit to Damascus by the former U.N. secretary-general. “We can’t hear each other even if we wanted to.”

Opposition leaders say the thousands killed at the hands of Assad’s security forces, many while protesting peacefully, mean they will accept nothing less than Assad’s ouster and the end to his family’s 40-year dynasty in Syria.

Assad is not willing to give an inch, either. On Sunday, he said a political solution is impossible as long as Syria is being threatened by “terrorist groups” — the regime’s term for its opponents. His comments all but ensured the military crackdown will continue indefinitely, as Assad tries to crush an uprising that has transformed into an armed insurgency.

Neither side has scored a decisive blow in the conflict, which already has killed more than 7,500 people over a year of ferocious turmoil. Both parties are holding out for absolute victory, convinced their goals are within reach.

Many in the Syrian opposition seem to be holding out for outside intervention. The Syrian National Council is openly calling for foreign military help but even within the Syrian opposition, the subject is divisive. Many, especially those in Syria who are bearing the brunt of the battle, oppose foreign intervention, saying that it will not work in such a religiously diverse country.

International pressure on Assad reached a new peak last week when a senior U.S. military commander said President Barack Obama was assessing options for military intervention in Syria, in the form of enforcing a no-fly zone and humanitarian airlifts.

Against the backdrop of this extraordinary wave of resistance to Assad, both at home and abroad, the opposition feels no urgency to sit down and hammer out a diplomatic solution that would inevitably fall well short of its demands.

On Monday, more than 150 Syrian refugees in Turkey called for his execution.

“We (the Syrian people) are emphatically calling out to the whole world: You are watching what is happening on television and you’re not doing anything about it,” said Malik Ali, a Syrian refugee.

But the decision not to engage — by both sides — could backfire.

Despite the Obama administration’s predictions that the regime’s days are numbered, Assad still commands a strong army that is unlikely to turn on him and he has a significant measure of support among those who fear their country will descend into chaos and extremism without him.

Syrian government officials and prosperous Syrian businessman and officials have long traded political freedoms for economic and other advantages, so they are loath to join the uprising.

Many Syrians also fear being persecuted if the Sunni majority, which is the driving force behind the uprising, gains the upper hand in the country. Syria has a fragile mix of ethnic groups including Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and the minority Alawite sect, to which Assad and the ruling elite belong.

Still others have stuck behind Assad — or at least not openly opposed him — because of his long-standing anti-Israel policies and tough stance toward the West.

Even if they wanted to abandon Assad, the alternative doesn’t yet hold a huge attraction for many Syrians. The opposition’s fighting force, the Free Syrian Army, is made up mostly of low-level conscripts who abandoned the army and holds no territory.

Internationally, Assad has also retained the iron loyalty of Russia, an alliance that many believe has given the regime diplomatic cover to intensify its crackdown and much needed support on the world stage. In February, Russia and China vetoed a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that would have supported an Arab League peace plan calling on Assad to hand over his powers.

The veto coincided with the beginning of a monthlong assault on rebellious neighborhoods in the central city of Homs.

As the Syrian regime and the opposition hold out, however, civilians are feeling the brunt of the pain. The economy has taken a nose-dive, food prices are soaring and crime is on the rise.

But in the refugee camp in Turkey, protesters saw no room for compromise.

“Enough, enough!” the shouted, demanding that Assad leave for good. “You’ve been in power for 40 years!”

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