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Leading article: First, stop Syria's war spreading


It is difficult to see a clear winner emerging from the ever-bloodier civil war in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad admitted yesterday that his government needs more time "to win the battle" against the rebel militias. He did so as the crash of artillery fire resounded across Damascus and Aleppo and large parts of the country have fallen under rebel control. For all their superiority in firepower, government forces are under continuous attack.

Mr Assad may not be winning, but there is no sign of his regime imploding, despite the defection of the Prime Minister and the assassination of key security leaders. The situation is very different from Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi's support suddenly collapsed a year ago under the weight of Nato air attacks and its own isolation rather than pressure from the insurgents.

The Syrian rebels have shown that they can take over whole districts of Damascus and Aleppo, but they have been unable to hold them. They may win in the long term, but that could be far in the future after tens of thousands more Syrians have been killed. The latest news of the massacre in the town of Daraya suggests both sides now feel free to slaughter the lowliest supporters of their enemies. There is every chance the butchery will get worse.

One of the reasons why the Syrian war is so bloody, and may continue for a long time, is that it is really three conflicts wrapped into one. There is the struggle of the Syrian people against the government, but also the long-running confrontation in the region between Shia and Sunni, and between allies of Iran and its opponents. Saudi Arabia and the absolute monarchies of the Gulf are not helping the Syrian rebels out of any desire to bring democracy to the Syrian people.

Mr Assad yesterday ruled out "safe havens" for refugees on Syrian territory, and it is true that the establishment and defence of these would probably mean armed conflict between Syria and Turkey. At this stage, both government and rebels believe they have a chance of winning a clear victory, unlikely though this may be. The rest of the world cannot stop the war, but they should do their utmost to try to prevent it from spreading to Lebanon and destabilising the rest of the region.