Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Blocs are locked into Syrian positions

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TEL AVIV -- The meetings held recently in various cities to discuss the Syrian situation were no more than an exercise in futility.

The meetings have served only the Syrian regime more time to implement its own military solution, which practically meant the continued deaths of hundreds of innocent people every week. After the collapse of a UN peace plan brokered by UN special envoy, Kofi Annan, UN observers sent to Syria to observe the non-existent ceasefire are now confined to their hotels, since it became too dangerous for them to go out and observe the ceasefire.

This came as no surprise. During his one-day trip to Israel last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not even try to conceal his hope that, under his leadership, Russia would regain its world prestige from the Soviet era. For him, the card to play is Syria and he did not conceal his hope to be able to play this card.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak were somewhat surprised by the degree of Putin's determination to keep the Syrian issue at the forefront of his Middle Eastern policy.

"There is no way that you can push the Syrian problem into a dark corner," Putin said.

The Russian president refuses to undertake Bashar Assad's ousting, as many in the U.S. and the western world, want him to do.

Meanwhile, Syria is behaving as though it can continue to defy the entire world. By a presidential decree, Assad appointed a new Syrian government, headed by Riad Hajjab, but he kept the defence, foreign affairs and the interior at the heads of the previous government. Assad added two local opposition leaders to the new team. Both have no public standing but they are known to favour national dialogue and prepare for new elections, with Assad still in power.

In the absence of a credible alternative in sight, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are continuing to finance arms supplied to the rebels through Turkey. As a result, the Free Syrian Army is now better equipped and better supplied but it is still far behind the regular Syrian army. The defection of two Syrian army generals was good for the morale, but it did not alter the balance of power with the regular army. The Syrian army is still better equipped and better trained and still enjoys superiority over the rebels. The same can be said about the defection of one Syrian MiG-21 to Jordan, where the pilot sought and received political asylum. As of now, the Syrian air force is still loyal to Assad and the defection of one pilot does not alter the balance of power in favour of the rebels.

What about Turkey? There was a moment last week when it was thought that Turkey would retaliate for its F4 Phantom jet being downed by the Syrian air defence. The Turkish plane flew at a low altitude and penetrated Syrian air space. There are unconfirmed reports the Turkish plane was trying to test the alertness of the Syrian air defence.

If this was indeed the purpose of the flight, then Turkey failed miserably. Despite the early hour, the Syrian air defence was fully alert.

Then came the usual Turkish threats and warnings for retaliation. These were empty threats. Turkey is a member of NATO and it cannot involve the alliance in a military operation that could become a major conflict. As it happened in earlier cases, Turkey swallowed its pride and did nothing.

So what now? All sides are in a bind. There is no way Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey would stop their aid to the Syrian rebels. Nor can the U.S. and Western Europe change course. At the same time, Russia, Iran and Syria are unlikely to change their position in the near future. Both blocs are locked in a terrible situation. Neither can afford to show weakness. There is a lot at stake. It's not only Syria, it's the entire Persian Gulf area. The sad result is that despite the killings, all sides have no choice but to continue the struggle. And in the meantime, the poor Syrian people will continue to spill their blood, knowing quite well that the price is getting higher and higher.

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press Middle East correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 4, 2012 A10

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.

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