18 Nov 2011

Too many actors in the push for Syrian peace

The problem with brokering a resolution to the situation in Syria is that there are just too many regional actors with different agendas.

Syria has witnessed the largest demonstrations in months today.

“The people want the execution of Bashar,” they chanted in the city of Hama , calling for the president’s downfall. Across the country, large crowds have called for the imposition of a no-fly zone.

And with the armed opposition apparently growing, the Americans are now echoing the Russians in likening this to a civil war.

For now, all eyes are on the Arab League attempts to stop the fighting. Their 21 members have given Syria till tomorrow to halt the violence and agree to foreign observers. At the time of writing, there’s no deal.

In theory that paves the way for the league to impose sanctions. But the Arab League has already gone further than many expected by suspending Syria. Their united front could fall apart over failing to agree what happens next. The problem is, there are just too many regional actors with different agendas.

North of Syria you have Turkey, talking about imposing no-fly and buffer zones to protect civilians. The Jordanians down south are speaking the same sort of language. But the Americans and Europeans don’t like the sound of action without UN backing, and plans are still apparently at the hypothetical stage.

Meanwhile Israel is watching all this from the sidelines and may be feeling that the devil it knows in Syria is better than the one it doesn’t.

For now, the UK-US response looks like backseat driving, but increasingly leaning over the front seat and telling the Arabs and Turks they need to agree a more coordinated response.

Americans and British diplomats are talking to all the main players in Paris today, with William Hague sending a senior diplomat named Frances Guy. She’s supposed to be upping the UK’s contacts with Syrian opposition groups, and Mr Hague may meet some of them himself next week.

The UK may not have a stellar record in Middle East nationbuilding; but ironically our advice to the opposition, the Arab League and others could prove invaluable precisely because of our past mistakes.

Meanwhile Syria’s old colonial power, the French, are leading calls for any intervention – humanitarian corridors or whatever – to go through the UN.

“I think it will be good if the security council comes to a decision,” their foreign minister, Alain Juppe, said in Turkey today. “It is not acceptable to remain unresponsive during a crisis this big. I hope those who block all security council resolutions become aware of what they are doing.”

That, of course, is a swipe at the Chinese and Russians. Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, said today that Russians “prefer getting on with our own business” and that there is “no place for force” – but the fear is that without a coordinated response from the UN, the situation could spin further out of control.