LAKHDAR BRAHIMI, the experienced Algerian peacemaker who recently replaced Kofi Annan as the UN’s special envoy for Syria, describes his new task as “nearly impossible”. That seems a sound judgment. Syria’s beleaguered but ruthless regime refuses to talk to its opponents until they lay down their arms.For their part, the outgunned, fractious but resilient rebels will not talk to the regime until President Bashar Assad goes. The rest of the world watches in dismay or quietly fuels the conflict, as misery mounts. In August alone, the number of Syrian refugees applying for asylum abroad doubled, to 200,000.
Mr Assad has tried various tactics to stamp out the uprising, now entering its 18th month. First he promised reform, as his security forces shot at peaceful protesters. Then the regime claimed that all was well but for a few rogue “terrorists”. Now, having admitted that he is fighting a real war, Mr Assad is offering a choice: his regime must be accepted or his army will scorch the earth of those who go against it.
The regional governor in charge of Daraya, a rebellious working-class suburb of the capital, Damascus, that was devastated by Mr Assad’s forces in August, recently visited it bearing bread. A kindly speech about resupplying the stricken town was followed by a stark warning, says a resident at the scene: harbour the rebels again and Daraya will be razed to the ground.
Such warnings are taken seriously. Across the country, the army’s snipers, artillery and war planes ceaselessly pummel areas suspected of rebel sympathies. With growing frequency clusters of corpses, usually of young men with hands bound, have been found dumped by the road in government-held areas. On September 5th, 45 such bodies were said to have been retrieved in one incident. Ruthless loyalist assaults have kept central Damascus firmly under government control. Loyalist forces have regained patches of ground in Aleppo, the fiercely contested second city.
Yet there are signs of ebbing government strength. The practice of pushing oil drums full of explosives out of helicopters suggests that the air force may be running out of bombs. The regime has also begun drafting reservists into the army, whose combat strength, on paper, of 280,000 men is being badly depleted by casualties, defections and dipping morale. “We don’t know if they need us or just want us so we can’t fight against them,” says a 30-year-old who left for Lebanon as soon as the police came knocking to call him up.
But the regime’s threats and its determination to consolidate may work in some areas. Its narrative of an armed Islamist and sectarian uprising is becoming self-fulfilling, thanks largely to the violence inflicted overwhelmingly against Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority. Playing on fears of Sunni vengeance, the ruling clan now offers arms to local self-defence militias that draw from minorities other than its own Alawite sect, which makes up a tenth of the population but dominates the security forces. A mysterious spate of attacks attributed by the regime to “terrorists” has stoked anxieties in Jaramana, a sprawling Damascus suburb that houses many Christians and Druze. “Some people want to throw their hands up and say OK, whoever, we just want it to stop,” says a local.
Light your neighbours’ fire
Mr Assad may be signalling a willingness to spread fires abroad, too. In Lebanon alleged transcripts of an interrogation by the Lebanese police of Michel Samaha, a former government minister close to Mr Assad arrested in August, suggest that top Syrian security officers had supplied him with bombs intended to kill various Lebanese Sunni and Christian figures.
Turkish officials suspect that Mr Assad’s regime has handed Syria’s north-eastern Kurdish areas to militias tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a guerrilla group that has been fighting Turkish forces for over 30 years. The PKK was blamed for an attack in southern Turkey on September 3rd that killed nine Turkish policemen.
Such divisive tactics have long been a hallmark of the Assad family’s rule. Although opposition fighters have alienated some propertied city dwellers, they retain the support of much of the rural population and have continued to wear down Mr Assad’s forces. Attacks on government supply convoys have stranded remoter army units and ground assaults on air bases are beginning to take a toll on Mr Assad’s air force: three out of its 27 bases may no longer be operable. Helicopters are now rarely sighted in Syria’s rebel-dominated north-west because fighters have fashioned weapons to shoot them down.
Pointing to their successes, rebel commanders say they will push on, with or without outsiders’ help. The American administration has licensed the Syrian Support Group, an organisation of exiles, to ignore the American arms embargo and fund opposition fighters. Western leaders are growing less squeamish about dishing out aid. “We are behind the curve in seeing this as a military conflict while other regional actors step up what they are doing,” admits a Western diplomat, echoing reports of a boost in arms shipments to the regime from Iran. Moves by the disparate rebel militias to unify their command structures have been quietly encouraged, in a sign of the West’s impatience with Syria’s squabbling political opposition.
Rather than press for negotiations, Mr Brahimi may concentrate instead on simply maintaining a UN foothold in Syria’s quagmire, with the intention of mediating at a more opportune time. That moment is unlikely to result from a bold diplomatic initiative for a long while. There is no sign of either side wanting to cease fire. Perhaps a particularly jarring spike in violence might jolt outside governments into more urgent diplomatic or even military action. “I hope one day I see my home again,” says a dejected young writer now in exile. “But who knows if I will recognise it.”