Friday, 7 September 2012

7 September 2012

I don't suppose that when anti-Assad protesters began their uprising in Syria 18 months ago, they looked in their diaries and murmured: "Hmm, US presidential elections in November next year -- could be a problem."

But perhaps they should have done, because they desperately need Washington's attention, and they don't seem to be getting much of it. And until the November elections are out of the way, I very much doubt that will change.

It always used to be said that nothing ever happened in the Middle East unless the US was directly involved. It was never quite as true as people liked to make out (the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians, for example, were signed in 1993 with only minimal involvement of the Americans).

It's certainly not true any longer, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world, who decided to take their fate into their own hands and launch the Arab Spring.

And yet. If you want effective international diplomatic action -- and even more so if you want effective international military action -- you still need Washington. With US eyes off the ball, having given up on the UN playing any useful role in Syria, it looks as if there's a huge gap waiting to be filled.

Enter stage right and stage left President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt and prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Both think they can increase their regional influence by playing an active role in Syria, but both are already running into trouble.

Take Mr Erdogan first. Once he was President Bashar al-Assad's friendly neighbour to the north, keen to do business and not too bothered about the niceties of democratic governance in Damascus.

But shortly after the uprising began, he threw in his lot with the anti-Assad protesters, called on the Syrian president to stand down, and was soon hosting tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and, below the radar, offering assistance to Syrian rebel forces.

Now there are 80,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, and Mr Erdogan is calling Syria a "terrorist state", blaming President Assad for stirring up trouble among Turkey's Kurdish minority. There's certainly been a sharp upsurge in attacks by the Kurdish PKK guerrilla group, which is regarded as a terrorist organisation not only by Ankara, but also by the US and the European Union.

Just this week, there have been reports of major clashes between Turkish forces and PKK fighters, involving a reported 2,000 Turkish troops and including military action across the border in Iraq. How long, some observers are asking, before Turkish forces cross into Syria in hot pursuit of their PKK foes?

As for President Morsi of Egypt, he's playing a very different game. As a man of the Muslim Brotherhood, he's keen to make common cause with the Sunni majority in Syria, who make up the bulk of the anti-Assad forces. He's also keen to show his Arab neighbours that after 30 years of Hosni Mubarak's staunch loyalty to the US, Egypt is now charting its own, independent foreign policy.

But his first attempt to carve out a role for himself in the Syria crisis was short-lived. At the summit of the non-aligned movement in Tehran last month, he hoped to broker a new diplomatic initiative which would include Iran, as Syria's most loyal ally, and the Arab states of the Gulf which have been backing the Syria rebels.

To be a broker, though, you have to command the respect of both sides. And Mr Morsi's strongly-worded attack on President Assad infuriated not only Damascus but also Tehran. End of Morsi initiative.

So what are we left with? Washington engrossed in an election campaign for the next two months; an Egypt still trying to find its feet on the diplomatic stage; and a Turkey becoming seriously alarmed at the risk of blow-back, having dumped President Assad so early on.

Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of a million Syrians are estimated to have fled to neighbouring countries -- most of them to Jordan -- and the level of casualties in Syria is higher than at any point since the uprising began.

Turkish calls for a buffer zone on Syrian soil to offer some protection to Syrian non-combatants seem likely to go nowhere, for the simple reason that buffer zones need military protection, and no one looks ready to send troops to Syria.

No wonder the new international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who has now taken over from Kofi Annan, calls his mission "nearly impossible".

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