The Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will have no place in any transitional government that follows the civil war in Syria, the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said this week. But if there are no negotiations, then the Syrian leader stands a good chance of still being in power in Damascus this time next year. On the ground, rebels are making gains, though not enough to end the political and military stalemate. Neither they nor the government forces hold a winning hand.
The Syrian government’s position looks more fragile when viewed from Beirut, London or Washington than it does in Damascus. Last month, I drove the 100 miles from the capital to Homs, the city that was once the heart of the uprising, and heard only a few shots fired on the road. In the city itself, the third largest in Syria, I heard no gunfire, though the Old City is held by the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and most other districts by the government.
The military tactics of both sides ignore the well-being of civilians in the cities. Armed rebel units move into the suburbs, whether they are welcome or not. In some places, like the large township of Douma on the outskirts of Damascus, the Muslim Brotherhood has always been strong and the FSA is popular. In others, particularly in Aleppo, the arrival of the FSA is regarded with dread.
Local people know what will happen next. Government artillery opens fire and bombs are dropped from the air. The population flees and the contested district becomes a ghost town. The rebels loot government offices, schools, factories and shops. The strongest support for the revolution is in the impoverished Sunni countryside and the city slums. The looting reminded me of Baghdad in 2003 when the poor and deprived Shia of Sadr City took advantage of the fall of Saddam Hussein to wreak social revenge, ransacking everything from the palaces of Baathist leaders to the showcases in the Natural History Museum.
The scale of the looting, and the inability of the rebels to restore regular life in the urban districts they control, strengthens the government. As an alternative to the Baathist police state, the rebels look decreasingly attractive, particularly to those who have anything to lose. For the 30 per cent of Syrians who are Alawite, Christian, Druze or any other minority, the FSA seems like a Sunni militia from which they can expect little mercy. The rebels respond that it is government death squads and propaganda that have forced a popular revolution into sectarian channels.
Could anything happen to change the present balance of power? Over the past year, the rebels have hoped that there would be foreign intervention along the lines of Nato’s air support for the insurgents in Libya. This is clearly not happening because of US and British fears of entanglement in another Middle East war.
Patrick Seale, the author and journalist who is an expert on Syria, says the conflict might become like the Algerian civil war in the 1990s when 200,000 Algerians died but the government stayed in power. But a great difference between Syria and Algeria is that the Syrian rebels have far more outside support, notably from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. The government’s military weakness is shown by its failure to launch a sustained counteroffensive in Aleppo to recapture parts of the city it has lost.
All this makes the Russian proposal for negotiations sound increasingly sensible. The rebel insistence that Assad’s departure be a precondition for talks is unrealistic since he controls most of the Syrian population. So far, there is little sign, unlike in Libya, of divisions within the inner core of the regime that might hasten its end, however dim its long-term prospects.
Forecasts by foreign leaders that the Assad regime is going to collapse of its own accord are in effect predictions of a rebel military victory. This is not going to come any time soon, bar massive foreign intervention. If the war is to end at all, it will be by negotiation. “There is no military solution,” as Mr Brahimi said. “The solution should not wait until 2014. It should be in 2013.”
The ghosts of Abu Ghraib - in court
The subsidiary of a US defence company has just paid $5.8m to 71 Iraqis who allege they were tortured in Abu Ghraib and other US-controlled prisons. But how do ordinary Iraqis view Abu Ghraib?
An insight into this was given a few years ago in a fascinating court case in Baghdad. A man who had bought a house near Abu Ghraib sued those that sold it to him on the grounds that they had not told him he would be close to the prison. He claimed that as a result of this, his house was beset by the ghosts of those tortured and murdered there. He and his family could not get to sleep, nor could he sell his house because potential purchasers were put off by the ghost problem. The court expressed no doubts about the presence of ghosts, but felt he felt he ought to have expected them so close to Abu Ghraib.