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Analysis: Syria's 'intractable' conflict


The BBC's Middle East bureau editor Paul Danahar recently visited Syria, where he saw a population living in a state of fear and suspicion. Here he explains the dimensions to the conflict and why a solution is proving elusive.

The world spent too long looking at the Syrian conflict through the prism of the other Arab uprisings. The regime was just another domino waiting to fall and that is how the world saw the crisis, in black and white.

But as the conflict became more complex it dissolved into shades of grey. There was still the army and the protesters but there were new elements too.

The scale of the uprising and the size of the country has stretched the regime because it only trusts its most loyal brigades to tackle the serious flare-ups.

They fear defections will occur if they ask ordinary units to open fire on civilians. There are not enough of these elite units to put out fires and then hold ground. So the government created militias, or shabiha, for that task.

They told the Alawite community, from which most of the leadership is drawn: "This is not a Syrian revolution, it is a Sunni revolution, so get on the right side."

They gave militias guns and they told them to protect themselves.

Most people I met in Syria believed that while the shabiha work hand in hand with the army to attack the opposition held areas, they are also working alone to carrying out sectarian murders or settle local feuds.

Some of these militias decided the best protection is the pre-emptive murder of the community next door.

It is not even simple on the opposition side. Frustrated by the willingness of the regime to shoot unarmed people and the world's reluctance to intervene to stop them some elements of the opposition began a military fight back.

In some cases they found that the help they started to get from outside came with strings attached.

That has led, diplomats told me, to on at least one occasion other regional countries using their command and control of some opposition military units to wreck local ceasefires negotiated by the UN.

It is because of this kind of incident that Kofi Annan wants to widen the group of people dealing with a resolution of the conflict.

Pervasive fear

Much of what the Syrian government said may not have been true but some of it now is. In some cases it has been a self-fulfilling prophesy.

image captionLarge-scale killings, like in Qubair, are believed to be the work of shadowy militias

Some Islamic extremists are now in Syria and they have come with the experience of fighting in Iraq under their belt.

They have no real masters. If you are not one of them you are against them and you are target.

Damascus was until recent months fairly detached from this violence. Now it is a city constantly on edge.

The major bomb attacks in the urban centres scared some of the minorities and the people in the middle ground towards the government fearing the rise of jihadi groups.

The rise of the militias has scared them back towards the opposition fearing a sectarian civil war. Even those people once close to the regime are now nervous about falling foul of the security services. Everyone is scared of a knock on the door.

Much of what the activists have said may have been true but some of it is not. One diplomat told me: "This is also a propaganda war - you can't take anyone at face value now."

That is why the role of the UN is so crucial because despite the shortcomings of its present brief the world needs a neutral eye on this conflict.

In Libya last year a UN resolution was drawn up almost entirely based on the "eyewitness" reports that the government was bombing the population from the air.

The claim was wrong and it helped create bad blood between the members of the UN security council. Syria is paying the price for that now.

'Yemeni Solution'

The UN mission on the ground has carried out a dangerous job but the status quo is quietly accepted as pointless.

Any extension of their mission must include changes to the scope and size of their operation.

image captionSome in Syria think Bashar al-Assad has not been tough enough

Some embassies closed for security reasons. Some closed because of pressure at home for a gesture, to be seen to "do something". Many activists in Damascus told me this was short-sighted because they now have no-one to talk to.

Those governments also now rely on second-hand information to shape policy.

The so-called "Yemeni Solution" is a case in point. So many diplomats I spoke to in the weeks and months before I went into Syria thought this was the solution to the problem - replace the president and hand power to the lower downs and the problem would be solved.

Then you hear that one of the chants among pro-regime supporters in Damascus is: "Send Bashar to the clinic and Maher to the leadership" - a call for the president's brother to take over because some in the regime think the boss is too soft.

Replacing the top tier of the regime might look neat on paper, but some of the people lower down are actually doing the killing, not just issuing the orders. Does the world really want them in charge?

Future for Alawites

Finally any solution must deal with the very real fears of the minority communities, and most particularly the Alawites.

Perhaps 30% of the Alawite community is relatively wealthy. The rest live in slums and survive only because of their government jobs.

They dominate the bureaucracy yet they make up only 12% of the country.

If the revolution is about justice, then justice means kicking many of these people out of their jobs.

The world tried "de-Baathification" in Iraq and it was a disaster. As uncomfortable as it may be, if the fabric of this society is to be held together, "justice" might have to wait a few years.

That suggestion provokes howls of protest from some in the opposition when it is mentioned. But trying to shut down the debate by crying "stooge " will stop dialogue and that will cost lives.

The minorities need to believe they will have a future in a new Syria. The opposition has to unify and offer these people a reason to put down their guns not convince them that they are in a fight to the death.