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Talks key to ending bloody Syrian conflict

Update: February, 17/2012 - 09:26

by Mai Hien

Just three months after the death of Libyan leader Muamar Gadhafi, Syria, another Middle East country, is enduring political turmoil that has dragged on for months. According to Colonel Le The' Mau, a senior commentator with the Vietnamese Ministry of Defence's Military Strategy Institute, the situation in Syria is more perilous than civil war.

In fact, he said civil war has already erupted in Syria between forces from the Syrian National Council - a government in exile - which is made up of groups from across the nation's fractured opposition movement, backed by "terrorist groups", alleged to be from al-Qaeda and president Bashar al-Assad's loyal forces.

Col Mau said there were two reasons for the crisis. First, he said political and economic crisis in Syria had led to rising unemployment, social inequality and a growing gap between rich and poor.

Secondly, Mau claimed the conflict originated from a US plan to pacify many countries in North Africa and the Middle East, Syria being the key to limiting the influence of Russia and China in the region.

Col Mau further said that outside forces wanted to take advantage of Syria's crisis to quickly overthrow the ruling government and bring pro-US forces to power. The Syrian conflict is further complicated by Syria's ethnic divisions. The Assads and much of the nation's elite, especially the military, belong to the Alawite sect, a small Muslim minority in a mostly Sunni country. They are supported by influential Christian businessmen who control much of the commerce.

No one can deny that any change in Syria's government would present opportunities to many camps, particularly the US. Bringing down President Assad would increase the West's bargaining chips on the Iranian power and oil issues as Syria and Iran enjoy close relations.

Some say that a new government in Syria that is more focused on domestic concerns could end any Syrian action that runs contrary to US interests - and could further isolate Iran.

The situation in Syria became graver when Ayman al-Zawahri, an al-Qaeda leader has called on Muslims around the world to oppose Assad.

It was reported that some western countries used al-Qaeda militants to kill civilians in Libya and then blamed Gadhafi forces for "repressing civilians" and accused them of "crimes against humanity".

This "Libyan scenario" is now being pushed in Syria. Critics even ask the question: Is al-Qaeda, a terrorist organisation, which the US wants to wipe out in the so-called "war on terror", in the same front with the opposition forces in the fight against president Assad?

It should not be forgotten that key hot spots in Syria, such as Homs, were known for their Islamic militancy. The longer the conflict drags on, the more it created opportunities for al-Qaeda.

"The longer this goes on, we may get a permissive environment in Syria for these kinds of characters as Syrian people become more and more desperate," Associated Press quotes Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre. "I don't think they [al-Qaeda] are welcome in Syria but there may be desperate people in Syria looking for any kind of help," Shaikh said.

Analysts predict the impasse will last for a long time because neither side can get the upper hand. Assad still enjoys loyalty in many areas of Syria, while opposition forces seem to be scattered and not in control of any significant geographical areas.

Much has been talked about in the mass media recently about the Libyan scenario succeeding in Syria, but most commentators agree that Western intervention is not likely to happen in the near future.

Libya was much more isolated than Syria, who is an influential country in the Middle East. It has economic ties with leading nations and power blocs, such as the European Union, China and Russia.

China and Russia vetoed a UN draft resolution on Syria during a UN Security Council meeting on February 4 because they said the draft was "unbalanced", adding that both the Syrian government and opposition were responsible for the violence.

"Of course we condemn violence from whichever side it comes, but we must not behave like a bull in a china shop. We need to allow people to decide their own fate independently," the Interfax news agency quoted Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as saying.

"China consistently maintains that constructive dialogue and co-operation is the only right way to promote and protect human rights," said Wang Min, China's deputy permanent representative to the General Assembly. "Our purpose is to shield the Syrian people from conflicts and warfare."

As Mike Salamon wrote in the International Affairs Review: "Any proposal for US-led military action in Syria would be politically untenable in this election year. It would be criticised from the left as embroiling the country in yet another military conflict in an Arab nation. "

"And it would be criticised from the right as an unnecessary expense at a time when the nation's fiscal situation is leading many to conclude that government programmes once viewed as sacrosanct must be cut or even eliminated," he said.

France has also opposed the military option. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told TV channel BFMTV: "We think foreign military intervention would only aggravate the situation."

The Organisation of Islamic Co-operation on Wednesday urged greater diplomatic pressure to force Syria's government to negotiate with the opposition but said it was against the use of foreign military intervention.

What is the worst scenario? Syria is located at the centre of the Arab-Islamic area in Western Asia, surrounded by Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. Due to its unique geographic location, analysts believe that a forced government change in Syria would have a serious impact on the political situation in Iran, Lebanon and Palestine - and throughout the whole Middle East.

So what are the solutions? There are several options on the table. Russia has sent its foreign minister to Damascus and has its own plan for Syria in which the League of Arab States observer mission should continue its work and all parties in Syria engage in political dialogue with a view to finding a peaceful solution.

Meanwhile China has offered to send an envoy to the region to discuss the crisis.

The Arab League has said it would open contacts with the Syria's opposition and offer full financial support, as well as ask the United Nations to form a joint peace force - moves swiftly denounced by Damascus.

History has shown that dialogue often holds the key to major disputes.

George Gabbour, an international political analyst in Syria, said a government change imposed from outside was not in the interest of the majority of Syrians, especially when they were supporting political reform rather than political system change.

The current stalemate persists partly because the opposition insists on Assad's departure as a pre-condition for talks. On Wednesday, he issued a decree, setting February 26 as the date for a referendum on a new draft constitution – one of the main demands of Syrian protesters.

This could pave the way for the formation of a multi-party political system.

To end the bloody conflict, both Assad and the opposition should engage in immediate dialogue and abandon violence. It's time for all parties in Syria to settle the crisis because no side stands to make permanent gains. — VNS

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