Insight and foresight from the global frontlines

A negotiated solution to Syria? Unlikely.

Syria's war is going to end with a defeat for Bashar al-Assad or the uprising, but not because of events at the UN or Arab League.

Reports that as many as 10 members of the 15-member UN Security Council support a proposal to ask Syria's Bashar al-Assad to step down to end the war in his homeland sparked a flurry of optimistic speculation in the press this morning.

The speculation missed two things:

A. UN requests for world leaders to step down are usually about as effective as Jon Huntsman's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

B. Russia has repeatedly vowed to veto any Security Council action, no matter how toothless. Mr. Assad has repeatedly insisted he isn't going anywhere and his bloody, extended crackdown against his opponents across the country is evidence of his determination.

What the UN drama really boils down to is an awareness by France, the US, and other concerned countries that they're not going to act unilaterally and that there's little likelihood of collective action. The NATO intervention in Libya, backed by the UN and the Arab League, amounted to a perfect case for a limited intervention.

In addition to Muammar Qaddafi having practically no friends left in the world except for some members of the African Union, the country's topography lent itself well to a use of air power and its war was unlikely to have major ramifications for neighbors. It didn't hurt that Qaddafi had lost control of a large swath of his country to the rebellion before NATO decided to act.

Syria's rebellion is nowhere near as advanced. It lives in a much less stable neighborhood, and any bombing campaign would require a lot of strikes in towns and cities, with the likelihood of large numbers of civilian casualties. And, of course, countries like Russia who went along unwillingly with the intervention in Libya have vowed not to tolerate any such action again.

So don't look to the UN for progress in Syria. And certainly don't look to the Arab League, whose observer mission to Syria was pretty clearly a waste of time form the moment it began. For now, the solution to Syria's war will be internal and probably not negotiated. The self-styled Free Syrian Army, composed mostly of Sunni Muslim defectors from Assad's army, has grown bolder in its attacks on government forces. The Monitor's Nick Blanford wrote a good piece today on its growing influence – and its requests for Western help.

Its members are well aware of the tens of thousands of Syrians whom Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, had killed in Hama in 1982 to put down an uprising and that they probably won't be well treated if they surrender. And after so much blood being spilled, including stories of children being tortured to death in government custody, Assad's opponents kissing and making up with the government would seem a big stretch.

On the government side, Assad's minority Alawite sect is likely to fight fiercely to keep what's theirs, and fear the erosion of their privileged position in Syrian society if political change. As things are pitched now, it looks like more war, with Assad continuing to hold the upper hand. 

The UN is largely talking to itself when it considers a draft resolution about Assad stepping down, handing power to a Sunni deputy, and then forming a "national unity government." Similar proposals were made during the Libyan war. But Libya's rebels had no trust in Qaddafi, much as Syria's don't have trust in Assad. It's possible the UN is going to find a breakthrough here, but that's not the way to bet.

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