Syria has been rocked by fresh violence despite the agreement of all five permanent United Nations Security Council members and the Syrian government to a six-point peace plan.
The plan calls for a “Syrian-led political process to address the aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people”.
Unlike previous Western-backed initiatives, the proposal does not call for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar Assad. It calls on the regime to release arbitrarily detained people, ensure freedom of movement for journalists and to respect freedom of association.
It also calls on all sides to observe a daily two-hour ceasefire “to ensure provision of humanitarian assistance”.
Russia and China vetoed previous Western initiatives in the UN that included calls for Assad to step down. Moscow and Beijing interpreted this as leaving the way open for Western military intervention similar to that which took place in Libya after the UN Security Council resolution for a “no-fly zone” in March last year.
The US position on Syria remains ambiguous. Reuters reported on March 27 that while officially supporting the UN resolution, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “Given Assad’s history of over-promising and under-delivering, that commitment must now be matched by immediate actions. We will judge Assad’s sincerity and seriousness by what he does, not by what he says.
“They must be able to clearly demonstrate a commitment to including all Syrians and protecting the rights of all Syrians. We are going to be pushing them very hard to present such a vision in Istanbul.”
There is a planned meeting of Western governments and their regional allies set for April 1 in Istanbul. Syria will be represented by the Syrian National Council (SNC).
The SNC is an alliance of expatriate opposition politicians that the West treats as representative of the Syrian uprising. This is despite its lack of accountability to, and rejection by much of, the internal opposition.
Attempts to portray the SNC as unifying the Syrian opposition were undermined by a walkout by delegates from an SNC meeting in Turkey on March 27, saying their views were not being heard.
Syrian state TV showed Assad visiting the formerly rebel-held neighbourhood of Baba Amr in the city of Homs on March 27. AP reported the internally-based opposition Local Coordination Committees said 59 people were killed throughout Syria that day, 33 of them in Homs province.
That day, armed opposition groups attacked Syrian army posts along the border with Lebanon.
UN officials estimate the death toll since the anti-regime uprising began in February last year at 8000-9000 people. Most of these are opposition supporters killed by government forces, but with the rising militarisation of the conflict, government soldiers make up a greater proportion of the body count.
The armed opposition is becoming more prominent. However, Jonathan Steele said in a March 22 London Review of Books article that non-violent protests were continuing, including in the suburbs of Damascus.
Steele said: “Class is a significant factor in the Syrian protests, and the alienation and anger felt by the young unemployed who live so close to pro-regime prosperity … Class is also the reason many better-off Syrians cling to the regime, however much they privately deplore the repression.”
Steele reported that, unlike the SNC, opposition activists within Syria were generally opposed to outside intervention.
“When I asked the group that organised my trip to Qudsaya if they wanted NATO to bomb the regime’s military assets, as happened in Libya, they all said no,” he said.
Many activists were hostile to the SNC. “We feel they’re stealing the revolution from us,”a doctor from Homs told Steele. “Most of them live outside Syria and no one has elected them.”
The activists to whom Steele spoke had differing views on whether the opposition should take up arms. But most expressed concern at the rising violence and human rights abuses by opposition forces, while saying the regime was responsible for most bloodshed.
The rising spectre of conflict along ethnic and religious lines has been linked by many activists to the arming of opposition groups by outside powers. About 40% of Syrians belong to ethnic and religious minorities
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, allies of the West, have called for the arming of opposition groups and are believed to be doing so covertly.
Hassan Abdul Azim of the National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change said the Saudi-Qatari proposal “would complicate the situation and lead to civil war and a sectarian conflict”.
The Alawi Muslim sect, to which Assad belongs, has borne the brunt of sectarian violence. But the Vatican-linked news service Agenzia Fides reported on March 21 that Syrian Orthodox Church sources said, “militant armed Islamists … have managed to expel 90% of Christians in Homs and confiscated their homes by force”.
Agenzia Fides cited reports that opposition forces in Homs included “armed elements of various [hardline Sunni] Wahhabi groups and mercenaries from Libya and Iraq”.
The backing away by Western powers from calls for Assad to be replaced may reflect concern over the possibility of Syria descending into civil war.
The West has longstanding issues with Syrian support for anti-Israeli resistance groups in Palestine and Lebanon. But the regime of Bashar Assad, and his father Hefaz Assad, frequently sided with the West in regional conflicts, such as the 1991 war against Iraq.
The Assad regime never threatened its border with Israel, despite Israel having occupied the Syrian territory of the Golan Heights since 1967.
Moreover, the militias that came to power in Libya with NATO support have been in continual conflict with each other over parochial and regional rivalries. For example, Associated Press reported on March 27 that at least 50 people were killed in clashes between rival militias in Sabha.
This inability to establish a stable new regime in Libya does not bode well for a similar regime change in Syria, which is far more ethnically and religiously diverse.
On March 23, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution calling for Libya’s new rulers to investigate abuses.
The US and Italy blocked a Russian amendment calling for an end to arbitrary detentions in Libya, as well as a Ugandan amendment to “express deep concern about the deliberate killings … of persons of Sub-Saharan origins”.
AFP reported on March 23 that Human Rights Watch condemned the move by the US and Italy, saying: “The council adopted a resolution on Libya that did not recognise the extent and gravity of ongoing rights abuses there and rejected efforts to ensure continued monitoring of those violations …
“This resolution is blind to the serious abuses in Libya today, including apparent crimes against humanity by some militias.”
A February 15 Amnesty International report documented “widespread and serious abuses, including war crimes, by a multitude of militias against suspected al-Gaddafi loyalists”.
Many of those accused of being “Gaddafi loyalists” are Sub-Saharan African migrant workers — victims of racism and false rumours that African mercenaries fought for the overthrown dictator.
The March 2 British Daily Mail reported that video footage on YouTube showed African workers being held in cages and tortured. The Daily Mail estimated that more than 8300 Libyans and foreigners were being detained by the country’s new rulers.
A March 19 Amnesty International briefing paper said: “NATO has so far failed to investigate the killing of scores of civilians in Libya in air strikes carried out by its forces.”