The endgame in Syria is nowhere in sight

Wither Syria? Some observers interpreted UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s visit to Damascus and certain Russian statements as proof positive that the Syrian conflict will be resolved soon. It will not. Predicting that the endgame for Syria is imminent, it turns out, is wishful thinking.

The year 2013 promises to be as traumatic for the Syrian people as was 2012, when President Bashar al-Assad showed no hesitation in using whatever was available in his arsenal, including Scud missiles and cluster bombs, against the Syrian people.

Indeed, a new UN report confirms that what has transpired in Syria since the first crackdown in March 2011 is actually worse than we thought. "The number of casualties is much higher than we expected, and is truly shocking,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. More than 60,000 people were killed, about 25 percent more than the previously reported death figures. And since these include only those casualties that were officially registered, the actual number is likely higher.


Despite the revised death toll, as well as a new UN figure on refugees – more than 500,000 have fled to neighboring countries – the international community has not moved to coordinated action to deal with the escalating crisis. Nor has there been any meaningful effort to deliver urgently needed humanitarian assistance to the estimated four million Syrians displaced inside their own country as they seek shelter from the regime's violence.

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On the contrary, world leaders seem to have numbed into inaction. “The failure of the international community, in particular the Security Council, to take concrete actions to stop the bloodletting, shames us all,” said Pillay. She had urged the Security Council more than a year ago to refer Assad to the International Criminal Court. But thanks to vetoes by Russia and China, the council has been silent.

Further confirmation that the Syria endgame is not even close came from Brahimi, who declared at the end of his five-day visit to Damascus that "genuine change" would have to wait for the end of Assad’s presidential term in 2014. In the interim, some kind of transitional government that includes both Assad minions and representatives of the rebels should be formed. This idea was understandably rejected by Assad’s opponents, who await fulfillment of U.S. and EU calls for his ouster.

Brahimi also warned that “the situation is bad and worsening.” By the middle of 2013 there could be one million refugees outside Syria and another tens of thousands dead in the country, he said.

Assad has not yet used every available weapon in his battle for self-preservation. Deploying chemical weapons cannot be ruled out. Indeed, that prospect so concerns Syria’s neighbors that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah met in Amman to discuss options.

There is no reason to believe that Assad will take President Obama’s warnings against using chemical weapons any more seriously than he took Obama’s declaration, in August 2011, that the Syrian despot must go.

Moscow remains one of Assad’s chief enablers, and not an address to assist in ending the Syrian carnage. Foreign Minister Lavrov’s declaration that Russia does not support “regime change” was reaffirmation that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks on Syria had been misinterpreted by those who had hoped for a shift in Moscow’s approach.

At first, Putin’s statement at the EU-Russia news conference in Brussels that Russian leaders “are not preoccupied with the fate of the Assad regime” was seen as a sign that Moscow is reconsidering its wholesale support of Assad. But Putin also said on that occasion that “whatever changes are occurring in Syria, we would not like to see the same chaos there which we are seeing in other countries in the region.” In other words, intervention by Western powers, in Russia’s view, has not helped but has precipitated chaos in Libya, Iran, and Afghanistan. Moscow prefers the current turmoil in Syria.

The failure of Russia and the U.S. to reach a common understanding of the Syria crisis will also make it more difficult to address the huge and difficult challenge of healing and rebuilding Syria once a way is found to finally end the war. Thinking about the day after is clearly not a priority, but the enormity of that eventual endeavor should compel those closest to Assad to lay down their weapons, and those governments that have some influence on him to bring maximum pressure on the regime to desist.

Syria is a tragic, bloody stain on the international community in the second decade of the twenty-first century. As UN human rights chief Pillay so aptly observed, the international community has “fiddled at the edges while Syria burns.”