Lose-lose situation

Turkish soldiers stand guard after Syrian aircraft bombed the strategic border town of Ras al-Ain, killing and wounding many people on November 12, 2012 in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar. (AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC)

The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad appears to be playing a dangerous game, and few people believe that recent military action on the borders with his southern and northern neighbors is anything but accidental.

In recent days the level of military activity has picked up noticeably, whether on the occupied Golan Heights, or the already-tense frontier with Turkey.

The responses by the Israelis and the Turks have been largely vocal, and when they do respond otherwise, the actions taken are very measured. Ankara and Tel Aviv have insisted on showing that they are angry, but not angry enough to do more than to respond in (careful) kind: An artillery strike generates a counterstrike, enough to save face but not to change the rules of the game.

There have been similar, limited incidents on Syria’s borders with Iraq, and for months now, Syrian forces have committed violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty. But Beirut has little power to wield, and has sufficed by verbal complaints, not even voiced by the entire Cabinet, only individual officials.

When it comes to the Syrian conflict, some analysts had been waiting for the end of the presidential campaign in the United States to see political and diplomatic movement on the part of Washington and its allies. However, there is considerable skepticism about the prospect for any radical change in the stance of the U.S. and others, and if it does come, the process will be time-consuming.

A new, broader opposition group has been formed, called the Syrian National Coalition, but its leaders will have to make the rounds of various capitals before they achieve a significant change in the nature of the international community’s relationship with the Syrian opposition.

The Arab League and the United Nations special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, appears to be heading a doomed mission. His task appears to be dead in the water until further notice, even though this has yet to be announced publicly.

Amid this climate of hesitation, the positions of other major players are well-known to all. Assad’s biggest backers, namely Iran and Russia, will continue to back Damascus with words and deeds.

In the recent past, Syria has caught the attention of the world – but with the lack of meaningful political movement, this attention has been diverted to other matters, as is natural. However, Syria won’t go away because of the country’s geographical location, surrounded by key countries such as Turkey, Iraq and Israel.

Assad’s bet appears to be that if anything, the spillover of Syria’s war into its neighbors will revitalize this attention, but to his benefit. The regime in Damascus believes that the international community will act to pressure the various sides to end the conflict, without the fall of the Baathist regime.

Assad could also be convinced that any concerted international action will generate support domestically for his embattled regime, since many Syrians are loathe to publicly support foreign intervention in what they believe should be a purely domestic affair.

In some ways, this is a common tactic by the Assad regime: It has no qualms about convincing itself, despite all of the available evidence to the contrary, that it is on the way to “victory.”

But it can’t be denied that the regime has lost control of large parts of its territory, and Assad’s Presidential Palace itself has now become another target in the fighting.

If the conflict drags on in such fashion, whoever “wins” in Syria will end up a loser, because of the enormous cost of putting the country back together again.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 13, 2012, on page 7.




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