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Leading article: Only politics can hope to resolve Syria's problems

It is possible, though extremely unlikely, that Assad will be toppled or defeated

Two great global crises are moving, almost simultaneously, towards a climax. The common currency project, the most ambitious bid to create a supranational Europe, is in danger of unravelling, with devastating consequences for world financial stability and economic growth. And across the Mediterranean, the ever worsening Syrian conflict may set the entire Middle East aflame.

The two situations are very different, but they have one element in common. For both, the only hope of a lasting solution lies in a giant leap forward: in Europe, to a genuine economic, and therefore political, union; in Syria – and by extension most of the Arab world – to reconciliation between the Sunni and Shia, and the creation of real countries, rather than geographic assemblages of different religious sects, tribes and ethnic groups.

Whether what is now happening in Syria qualifies as a civil war is a semantic quibble. As The Independent reported yesterday, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing the rebels with anti-tank and other weapons. Meanwhile, Russia has supplied the Assad regime with attack helicopters. Both developments raise the conflict – which has already taken 11,000 lives – to new levels of violence. By any common-sense definition, this is a civil war.

The immediate outlook could hardly be bleaker. The ceasefire called for by the Annan plan, the one serious diplomatic attempt thus far to halt the bloodshed, was honoured only in the breach. The Russians have stymied any meaningful action by the UN Security Council. In the US, the heirs of the neocon movement urge a massive arming of the rebels (which seems to be happening), and, if that does not work, then direct military intervention by a Washington-led "coalition of the willing". The parallels with Iraq are as obvious as they are disturbing.

Neither does the Nato-backed overthrow of the Libyan regime offer any guide. Muammar Gaddafi was an insignificant despot on the margins of the Arab world, without allies. Syria by contrast is at the very heart of the Middle East and its overlapping tensions.

It is of course possible, though extremely unlikely, that President Assad will be toppled by a coup or defeated in the field. Failing that, however, there will be military stalemate, with Syria's wretched citizens trapped in permanent civil war. For that reason, the solution there – albeit as hard to imagine, now, as the surrender of national sovereignty needed to end the euro crisis – must be political.

It is easy, on both political and practical grounds, to dismiss Russia's call for an international conference involving all players in the region and building on the Annan plan. Given diplomacy's often glacial pace, not to mention the source of the proposal, the move may indeed be a cynical attempt by Moscow to buy time for Assad to finish the job with the tools with which it is providing him. Those of a practical bent might also wonder if the US will really sit down at the same table as Iran. But if a new post-Assad Syria is to be peaceably created, then such a conference may be the only way.

There are other priorities, too. In the short term, that means safe havens for Syria's internal refugees. The umbrella opposition group, the Syrian National Council, must also become more credible, and offer guarantees of safety to the country's Alawites and other minorities. More than anything, if Russia is serious about a conference, it must subscribe to a tough UN resolution, making clear that blame lies with the cruel Damascus regime. That is the message Barack Obama must deliver to Vladimir Putin at next week's G20 summit. Only then can work start on the impossible dream, of a Syria and a Middle East that is not an arbitrary mosaic of sects and tribes, but a collection of modern nation states.