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Massacre signals civil war

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TEL AVIV -- Despite the UN Security Council's unanimous condemnation of the massacre of 116 civilians, among them 32 children, in the Sunni Syrian village of Houla, near the city of Homs, there is no solution in sight for the Syrian uprising.

On the contrary -- all signs indicate that the Syrian rebellion could slide towards a chronic internal crisis, where President Bashar Assad's regime stays in power while facing ongoing internal opposition.

Outside military intervention, as in Libya, appears to be unlikely.

The massacre preceded UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's return Monday to Damascus in another effort to solve the Syrian crisis.

In previous visits to the Syrian capital, Annan submitted a six-point plan, the most important of which was the withdrawal of all Syrian troops and tanks from all Syrian cities. President Assad did not honour his promise to comply. On the contrary, the massacre Friday in Houla proved Syrian determination to quell the insurrection by force.

Unfortunately for Syria, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. The destruction across Syria has set the country back decades -- politically, economically and socially.

Although Syrian authorities refuse to acknowledge it, a Syrian civil war has been ignited, one that threatens to burn not only Syria, but also its multi-ethnic neighbours in Lebanon.

In an effort to avoid a disaster, the U.S. is trying to convince Russia to accept in Syria a solution similar to the one reached in Yemen. In San'a, the Yemenite parties agreed to a solution whereby the president resigned and his deputy took charge, pending new elections.

The U.S. has suggested a similar idea -- let Bashar Assad resign and have his Baathist deputy take charge pending new elections. But so far, neither Russia nor China appear ready to accept this solution.

Not to mention, of course, Iran.

It has become obvious that Syria's alliance with Iran is much stronger than was thought. In the middle of the insurrection, fighters from the Iranian al-Quds militia have taken part in the suppression of the Syrian insurrection. For this purpose, Iran created in Syria a special force -- trained and generously equipped with Iranian weapons.

In the middle of the insurrection, on July 15, 2011, Iran and Syria signed a $10-million gas agreement. Soon thereafter, in August 2011, Iran allocated $23 million for the modernization of the Syrian port of Lattakia.

Today, it is this powerful Syrian-Iranian alliance, with a minor Iraqi extension, that is resisting the growing determination of the Syrian rebels to bring down the regime.

Amid all this turmoil came revelations last week of an attempt to assassinate six top Syrian officials who met for dinner to discuss the suppression of the rebellion. Among them was Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, the chief of Syrian intelligence, and the minister of the interior.

Shawkat's bodyguard, who was secretly recruited by the rebels, managed to inject poison into the food and drinks of the participants. They were rescued by a miracle: Feeling uncomfortable, they were rushed to a nearby hospital and a Syrian physician managed to save the lives of all six.

The assassination attempt sent shock waves among Syrian leaders. The fact that a bodyguard managed to poison food for such a high-profile gathering proved that the regime is very vulnerable.

Assef Shawkat's bodyguard is now safe, outside of Syria.

It is almost impossible to deal with the Syrian crisis and the growing regional instability without dealing with the changes that occurred in the Middle East and their contribution to the regional instability.

During the last 30 years, Arab state power was gradually replaced by non-state actors, like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This decline of Arab state power was accompanied by a fundamental change in the defining ideology of the region, from secular Arab nationalism to political Islam.

Israel and the West were slow in identifying this change. The fact that the 1973 Yom Kippur war was the last war fought between regular armies, was interpreted as a reflection of the new regional balance of power.

As a result, the 1982 and 2006 Lebanese wars were not seen as reflecting a new strategy and a new balance of power, but a reflection of the existing balance of power, where the regular Arab armies left the struggle against Israel to Hezbollah and Hamas.

Iran and Syria were solidly behind this new strategy.

The revolutions of the Arab Spring are not over yet. It is too soon to predict what direction these revolutions will take. The civil war in Syria will tell us a lot about the direction this revolution will follow -- regionally and internationally.

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free

Press Middle East correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 29, 2012 A11

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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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