Recent developments present a mixed picture but confirm the regime’s total isolation, which explains why it has increased its attacks. The military gains the Syrian regime has made over the last few weeks have made the situation in Syria worse, not better. The number of Syrians fleeing their country has soared to 16,000 in Turkey alone, with tens of thousands of others internally displaced and taking refuge in other countries. The Syrian regime has started placing landmines along the Turkish-Syrian border in order to discourage residents from leaving the country.
The recent military assaults on Bab Amr in Homs, Idlib and Daraa have likely resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people, but no numbers can be verified because the regime does not allow it. UN representative Valery Amos described what she saw in Bab Amr as “total destruction.” Humanitarian aid organizations are still not allowed inside Syria. The fighting continues with varying intensities across the country.
Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League special envoy for Syria, has completed the first part of his mission and received, not surprisingly, a decisive and totally disappointing “no” from Damascus for any reasonable measures to stop the violence or start the process of transition. The Syrian regime has made it clear that it neither respects the legitimate demands of its own people nor cares about the minimum demands of the Arab League or the United Nations for any degree of order in Syria.
But it would be a mistake to think that the regime will sustain its carnage because it can stick it out. Damascus is hanging in not because it has political legitimacy, diplomatic maneuvering, economic backing or military capability but because of the precarious power balance in the region. So far, the Syrian regime has been able to exploit the imbalance to its advantage, but there is no guarantee that it will be able to sustain this for too long. Day by day, the Syrian regime is becoming a major liability for its patrons who will, sooner or later, recalculate their interests in Syria.
Some may find long-term references to the march of history as idealistic and detached from reality. The fact, however, is that the balance of power that keeps the Assad regime in power today may quickly change. Russia and China are aware that members of the international community hold them partially responsible for the crimes against humanity in Syria and as pressure mounts, the two countries are likely to reconsider their positions. Furthermore, their long-term interest lies with the people of Syria, not with the brutal and authoritarian regime that is sitting in Damascus today.
The Russian desire to assert itself in its last sphere of influence in the Middle East is understandable but misplaced. Instead of standing behind a regime that represents the old Middle East, Russia, together with China and Iran, should support the process of transition and help build a new Syria. The post-Assad Syria that will eventually emerge is not and will not have to be anti-Russian or anti-Iranian. The Syrian National Council, which is the umbrella organization representing the Syrian opposition, has made it clear on several occasions that they will work with all countries as long as they support the Syrian people. By turning a blind eye to the atrocities of the Syrian regime, Syria’s current patrons are jeopardizing their long-term interests in the Arab and Muslim world.
In the meantime, the worsening situation in Syria is forcing all concerned parties to intensify their efforts to increase the political pressure on the Syrian regime and provide humanitarian assistance, as well as empower the Syrian opposition. Despite the enormous difficulties on the ground, inaction is not an option.
These and other issues will be addressed at the second Friends of Syria meeting to take place in Istanbul on April 1. The meeting will focus on the dire circumstances caused by recent increase in government assaults and give a major platform to the Syrian opposition to present themselves as the sole representative of the Syrian people. The Istanbul meeting will also send a clear message of international disapproval to the backers of the Syrian regime and hopefully persuade them to reassess their current position.