There are still ways to end Syrian violence | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 30.10.2012
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Middle East

There are still ways to end Syrian violence

After the failed ceasefire, hope is fading for a quick end to the violence in Syria. But some observers think there is still room for negotiation if action is taken quickly.

A general view taken from inside a bullet riddled car shows sunset in the battered eastern neighbourhood of Shaar in Syria's northern city of Aleppo on October 28, 2012. Less than 24 hours before a truce negotiated by the United Nations (UN) is set to expire, mortar fire and jet bombing could be heard throughout the day as both sides exchanged small arms fire. AFP PHOTO / JAVIER MANZANO (Photo credit should read Javier Manzano/AFP/Getty Images)

Syrien Kämpfe Aleppo 28.10.2012 Rebell

The failed ceasefire was not much of a surprise. In the run-up, the newspaper Al Hayat, published in London, had already written that its main purpose was to buy time. According to an opinion piece in the paper, time was needed - time to bridge the gap before the US presidential elections - to discuss scenarios for a political solution, to discuss ways of strengthening the opposition's military operations, and to set up safe zones in the north and south of the country which would increase the pressure on the regime in Damascus.

Uncontrollable dynamics

This long list shows that it was unlikely from the start that the ceasefire would hold. It was recognized that it would be used by both sides to organize the supply of more weapons, but it soon became clear that the ceasefire would particularly disadvantage the government side. Opposition fighters in the north and the south had been taking territory for some time and securing their supply lines.

Lakhdar Brahimi addresses the media in Moscow

Lakhdar Brahimi's ceasefire was broken as it was announced

Government forces far outstrip the rebels as far as equipment is concerned, but the gap is narrowing with time, and that means the government feels under greater time pressure than the opposition.

Political scientist and expert on Middle East affairs, Werner Ruf, says that leaves the regime with just one option: "The regime of [Bashar] Assad has no other choice than to go for victory - and that means a military victory - otherwise it's all over."

He's not happy with the western policy of offering logistical support to the opposition. "It's a massive violation of international law and the principle of non-interference," he told Deutsche Welle. "And it gives the conflict a dynamic which can scarcely be brought back under control."

'All or nothing'

Free Syrian Army fighters eat lunch at Marat Al-Numan

Fighters had little time to relax before conflict resumed

But it's not just the west which is involved in Syria. Assad's supporters - above all Russia and Iran - are doing what they can too. Both sides are supporting their allies - also by supplying them unofficially with armaments, as confirmed by reports from fighters about the presence of US and Russian-made weapons.

According to Naseef Naeem, law professor at the University of Göttingen, neither side can afford to stop fighting: "The problem is that, once they've taken up arms, neither party is able to put them down again. If one side does so, the other will move in for the kill." That gives them only one option, says Naeem: "all or nothing."

Dissolution of state power

This option has a fatal result: both parties are now not just fighting each other - indirectly, they're attacking the state itself. Every day of fighting means further dissolution of Syria's state institutions. It's the regime which is the first to suffer, since it's the regime which controls those institutions. But it affects the whole of society: as infrastructure is further destroyed day by day, civilians as well as state officials die.

That's one reason that Ruf is skeptical about a military victory: "As in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even in Libya, an armed outcome will lead to another country in chaos, with continued civil war and no central state power."

Naeem believes the state is already well on the way to collapse. Weak states are already a common phenomenon in the Middle East, with new actors emerging to take over the state's role.

Asymmetrical forces

"We are dealing with asymmetrical forces which are essentially local and religious, and which have as much power in their region as the state - if not more than the state." he told Deutsche Welle.

Rebel fighters drive motorbike past people queuing for supplies in Aleppo during ceasefire

For a short time, the people of Aleppo could return to normal

And he calls on mediators to be aware of this fact. He can't see much chance of the violence ending soon, but if there is a key, it lies in talking to these new actors.

And he thinks it would be decisive that any mediation be led by a Syrian - "preferably a prominent personality who understands the language of the people. This person must be able to talk to the people involved on the ground - not just with the representatives of the government and the opposition, but also with civil society."

But any talks must be held soon, he adds. It's not just the state which is being harmed by every further day of war; civil society is also being worn down - organizationally, culturally and psychologically. The decisive impulse to end the violence could well come from Syrian civil society. But, says Naeem, civil society can only be consulted as long as it still exists.

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