All eyes are on Turkey. Monday marked the sixth day of cross-border Syrian shelling that Turkey met with retaliatory attacks. After 18 months of hand wringing and inaction, the question is: Will these attacks spark an international military response to President Bashar al-Assad's assault on the Syrian people? Or will Turkey and Syria come back from the brink?
Who cares and why?
Sadly, any resolution of the Syrian crisis will have very little to do with the desperate suffering of the Syrian people, even with shocking numbers like 31,000 estimated dead, tens of thousands disappeared, and millions internally displaced or refugees.
The war, and its end, is all about geopolitical wranglings. For Russia, support for Assad is about keeping their man in power in order to ensure lucrative arms deals and access to the Mediterranean, as well as standing up to the US in the Middle East.
For Iran, it's about making sure Syria remains a key player in its regional interests, and keeping a pipeline to Hezbollah in Lebanon. On the flip side of that sectarian fault line, Qatar and Saudi Arabia support the rebels in order to increase their regional influence and obstruct Iran. For the US, it's about reducing the Iranian threat on Israel.
Syria, in other words, has descended into a proxy war.
Five paths out of war
As a second winter of violence and hardship bears down on the people, global diplomatic action has totally failed. Europe is stuck in its own existential crisis, the US has the small distraction of an election, and we are yet to see UN envoys even get close to brokering a deal.
But there are five game-changer paths that could lead Syria out of this bloody shambles:
1) The Alawites turn their backs on Assad
Members of this minority Shia sect (of which Assad is part) dominate power in Syria and hold the key positions in government, commerce and the military. If they believe Assad can win the war, they will stick by him. But if they realise that staying with him will mean years of a bloody conflict that they cannot win and, more importantly, they are persuaded that they will not be exterminated in a new Syria, their defections will hold the key to peace.
This summer we saw key figures leave the army to support the revolution, and an emerging Alawite opposition is coming together. Yesterday the leader of the Syrian National Council said members of Assad's ruling Baath party could be included in Syria's political future if they did not participate in any killings. And the Free Syrian Army said it was open to the idea of the country's vice president leading an interim government.
These statements are a fundamental step towards winning over the Alawites – and a major improvement. Opposition figures had previously insisted they would accept nothing less than the complete removal of the Assad regime and its inner circle. But, to push this to a tipping point, threads of dialogue and trust must be strengthened and deepened, and Alawites must be guaranteed inclusion.
2) The Syrian opposition becomes a realistic alternative to Assad
Getting the Alawites to switch sides will depend largely on whether a strong alternative government can be created: one that convinces the Alawites that they will be represented in a post-Assad Syria. It also needs to persuade others "in the middle" that the opposition is a serious option, not a ragtag army and a divided, out-of-touch political opposition.
Finally, there is beginning to be movement in that direction.
After months of playing it safe, even the cautious National Coordinating Body for Democratic Change just called for Assad's ouster in Damascus – in front of Russian, Iranian and Chinese envoys. And in days, the Syrian National Council will meet in Qatar in what is billed to be the crucial meeting to get a strong leader elected that unites Sunnis, Christians, Kurds and Alawites, and aligns groups behind a shared political platform.
So far the Friends of Syria, the US and key European and Arab states have failed to coordinate a way of channeling support to the opposition. While the US and Europe dragged their feet, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have sent cash and weapons, and pay salaries to defectors.
The Friends of Syria disunity is amplifying the opposition disarray, but if they get their act together now and make a clear co-ordinated plan for support, a capable and inclusive opposition could finally emerge to replace Assad.
3) Iran and Russia are forced to ditch Assad
The Russians and the Iranians remain Bashar al-Assad’s very best friends. Russia has kept the regime flush with weapons and ammunition even as Assad's army massacres whole communities. Russia has sheltered the Syrian regime’s assets in its banks and has repeatedly handcuffed the UN’s attempts to intervene. Meanwhile the Iranians have threatened full-on engagement and poured specialist military officers into the country. But the tables could be starting to turn.
Reports say Iran just pulled out their covert operations unit last week. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's costly support to Assad is under pressure as heavy US-led sanctions take a serious toll on the Iranian street.
Russia's policy in Syria has provoked nothing more than harsh words from the west. This adds to Putin’s publicly supported position that he is defending Syria from a US invasion. But now pressure for the Magnitsky sanctions, which would deny visas and freeze Russian human rights abusers' assets, is beginning to come to the fore. If it is voted through, we may see chinks in Russia’s armour.
It's a long way off, but if Russian and Iranian elites begin to pay the price, they could force Assad to negotiate his way into exile.
4) The Friends of Syria unite to arm the opposition
The Free Syrian Army is trying to defeat an army of 300,000 troops and hundreds of attack planes with an improvised army equipped with second class weapons. This is David versus Goliath. Only 20% of the FSA have a military background, and it has yet to organise a command and control structure that works.
While the Saudis and Qataris back Islamist groups, dangerously exacerbating the power of the extremists, the US is tying the FSA’s hands by prohibiting the Saudis from sending surface to air missiles – precisely because they fear the missiles will end up with the jihadists.
US senators Lieberman and McCain and now presidential candidate Mitt Romney have come out in support of arming the opposition. They say it will be the crucial game changer needed to ramp up defections and turn the tide in the war.
It's certainly a very risky and dangerous step without achieving number two on this list. But while there is a risk of weapons falling into extremists’ hands, there is a higher chance for extremists gaining a foothold if the war drags on without western engagement. And without international military help, it may become the only way to achieve a genuine political solution and stop the drawn out agony of the Syrian people.
5) Turkey leads a Nato no-fly zone and an enforced safe zone
Last week, after Syria shelled Turkish villages, Assad apologised, for the first time, for the consequences of his war. The Russians were then forced, for the first time, to back a UN Security Council motion condemning the attack. If Assad keeps taking this across the border, we could see a radical shift towards intervention.
So far, Turkey seems pretty reticent to do more than respond to attacks. But the Turkish parliament has approved military missions into Syria, fighter jets have been sent to the border, and Nato has promised to back Ankara. And prime minister Erdogan has left the door open, saying, "We are not interested in war, but we're not far from war either."
Turkey’s army is the second largest in Nato (three times that of Syria's), but the Syrian military's possession of advanced Russian-made, surface-to-air missile batteries, and what are believed to be sizeable chemical weapons stockpiles, have worried neighbouring countries and nations considering more forceful engagement.
There is no doubt that a Nato no-fly zone is the one military action that could stop Assad’s murderous jets and helicopters bombarding towns. Nato aerial engagement, plus an enforced buffer zone on the border, would shield Turkish families from attack, protect civilians across the country, and create a safe area for opposition fighters and defectors. And it would up the military pressure necessary to bring Assad to the negotiating table.
Eighteen months in, the world is shamefully late on devising a road map out of this carnage: a path away from sectarian conflict and towards democracy.
It is critical that the international players now put saving Syria at the centre of their plans, rather than winning the regional chess game.
Sources: Guardian, Independent, Salon, CNN, Washington Post, New York Times, Iran Independent News Service, Avaaz, Europa, Huffington Post, Financial Times, Reuters