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Syria conflict expected to fester as world's attention strays

August 8, 2012 |  5:00 am

Shaken by defections and rebel encroachment on its strongholds, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is thought by some in the international community to be headed for collapse after a nearly 17-month uprising.

GlobalFocusBut independent political analysts unencumbered by wishful thinking tend to see the latest developments in the conflict as evidence of its descent into a long, bloody fight to the death as the world's attention drifts from the savagery that diplomacy has failed to stop.

Two weeks of intense fighting around Aleppo, Syria's largest city and the center of its battered economy, have inflicted untold new casualties, sent thousands more into foreign refuge and laid bare the goal of each side to annihilate the other.

The United Nations, the Arab League, the European Union and the United States failed to force out Assad and steer the combatants toward agreement on  transitional leadership. That has sent the war spiraling out of the control of outside forces. And it looks likely to rage on with mounting civilian casualties and sectarian atrocities, according to the latest accounts by international security experts.

"Increasingly entrenched and fearing neither threats nor sanctions, the regime has burned all its domestic bridges, and hard-liners with little capacity for compromise are firmly in control," the International Crisis Group says of the Assad government in "Syria's Mutating Conflict," a dire report forecasting unbridled bloodshed.

The fractured opposition fighting to oust Assad has also become radicalized and unmanageable, "threatened from within, despite its efforts, by sectarianism, retaliatory violence and fundamentalism," the just-released ICG report says.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday while traveling in Africa that the defection of Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab demonstrated the urgency of devising a coordinated plan for a post-Assad Syria. On Monday, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the defection, coupled with others by high-level military and government officials, "indicated that the Syria regime is crumbling and losing its grip on power."

On the periphery of Syria's civil war, there is less confidence that an end is nigh.

Andrew Tabler, Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has been traveling in the Lebanese border regions where refugees huddle and fighters regroup. He sees the defections as having had little influence on the determination of Assad to press on with the effort to eradicate opponents he labels "terrorists."

"These defections are not from the inner circle. The government in Syria doesn't run the country, the regime does," Tabler said in a telephone interview from northern Lebanon. "The prime minister was not the person who called the shots."

The resignation last week of the special envoy on Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was seen as Annan's recognition that political divisions within the U.N. Security Council were undermining any chance of getting either Assad or the rebels to comply with the world body's peace plan.

With nothing left to negotiate, a mood of quiet desperation has set in among those monitoring the conflict, now estimated to have taken 20,000 lives and displaced 1.5 million. 

"What we have witnessed in the past 16 months of revolt might just be the harbinger of a far greater human disaster to come," Martin S. Indyk, a former diplomat now directing the foreign policy program  at the Brookings Institution, testified last week at the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Indyk sees the Assad regime, made up of fellow members of the minority Shiite Alawite sect, as motivated to destroy the rebels out of fear that they would be slaughtered by the Sunni majority if Assad is driven out.

Alawites and other minority sects that make up more than a quarter of Syria's population see their choice in the conflict as "kill or be killed," said Indyk, noting that the regime, despite a few high-profile defections, has a well-armed fighting force of 300,000, thousands more shabiha paramilitary fighters  and the backing of Iran and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia.

With virtually no hope of foreign military intervention in a U.S. election year, the analysts say, it falls to the underdog rebels to offer assurances to Syrian minority communities that their rights would be respected and their interests represented in a post-Assad leadership.

“For those Syrians who have endured 17 months of repression, for whom the instinct of revenge must be hard to suppress, this might seem an inappropriate, unrealistic mission,” said Robert Malley, the crisis group's Middle East program director. "But it is a necessary and inescapable one if the transition is to be worth the enormous price that is being paid."

Tabler, of the Near East Policy institute, doubts that the scattered rebel units could provide such assurances.

"After 17 months of slaughter, I wouldn't rely on the better angels of anyone's nature," he said, predicting the war will be "a grinder."


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Follow Carol J. Williams on Twitter @cjwilliamslat


Photo: A Syrian boy peers out Tuesday from a schoolhouse in the town of Kafr Hamra, north of Aleppo, where his family has taken refuge from intensifying fighting between rebels and government forces. Credit: Khalil Hamra / Associated Press