As Syria summit gets underway UN pins hopes on Kofi Annan

Hillary Clinton wants a ceasefire and humanitarian aid – but Assad shows no signs of laying down arms

Column LAST UPDATED AT 11:38 ON Fri 24 Feb 2012

THERE’S an air of desperation about today’s meeting of the 'Friends of Syria' in Tunis to try to stop the fighting in Syria.

The representatives of some 80 nations and organisations have gathered to press for an immediate ceasefire and to persuade Assad's military regime to let in relief convoys, particularly to the battered city of Homs.

It is a forlorn hope because two key powers - and those with the best chance of persuading Bashar al-Assad to relent - aren't at the Tunis gathering. Furthermore Russia and China have said they still back the beleaguered president of Syria. And as long as he believes that he has the support of Russia and China, and his powerful regional ally Iran, he shows every sign of trying to tough it out.

If anything, the regime's tactics are hardening. They are now smashing whole neighbourhoods that might contain dissidents. There also appears to have been some sophistication in the Syrian army's targeting of buildings like the makeshift press centre and the adjoining clinic, where Marie Colvin died two days ago.

Syrian forces are well equipped with basic Russian military equipment - and their targeting radars and signals surveillance would have picked up the hot spot of international satellite communication by the reporters and photographers from the press centre.

The bombardment of Homs and half a dozen other towns and cities has continued today - and there is no sign of it slackening.

Given the rider that without Russian and China onside little can be achieved, what are the aims of the Tunis conference?

The first aim, says Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, is to get a ceasefire.

Second, with that in place, is to get joint UN and Arab League monitoring missions to pave the way for humanitarian convoys.

Third, again according to Mrs Clinton, and a lot more long-term, is to ensure a peaceful transition to democratic government in Syria.

Russia and China have made mild diplomatic gestures to bringing peace to Syria, though very much on their own terms. Each has sent their own envoy to Damascus. This hasn't got very far, beyond Bashar al-Assad saying that he might step aside in the future, but on the understanding that his clan will continue to run the armed forces, and therefore the country. He talks of constitutional reform - but this seems almost surreal in its irrelevance while the country is now caught in fratricidal fighting that may well run for a generation. 

Russia's objections to the UN plans proposed by Britain, France and the US, are based on two deeply embedded beliefs. Abandoning Assad now would mean ditching Moscow's staunchest ally and client in the entire Middle East - a loss of face, and real loss of diplomatic power and influence.

The second source of objection by Russia and China is that they see the opposition who have taken on Assad as the tools of the most militant elements of the Muslim Brotherhood. And they fear the Brotherhood will have growing influence over the Muslim militant groups both within the Russian Federation and the People's Republic.

The only argument likely to change Moscow's thinking is that their continuing support of Assad's armoured tyranny is likely to stir more trouble and now shows every sign of promoting the simmering tensions in Lebanon and Iran, and enhancing the prospect of outright war in both countries.

The western powers, too, are worried about the role of militant Islamists, most affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood and some to al-Qaeda. The activist cells in cities like Homs nightly rage against the umbrella Syrian National Council over calls by Skype. “You move around from one luxury hotel to another for your conference - yet you do nothing for the wounded and dying here,” one caller said from Homs this week.

Syria now is in the grip of a widespread communal war, with local factions, neighbourhoods, ethnic minorities and clans fighting each other. It is a society where trust is now a scarce commodity. This is why there is little prospect of the Alawite oligarchy ever being able to run Syria as it did up to last year.

But while the rule of the Alawite military clique may be doomed in the long term, in the short term there is still no coherent opposition with the remotest chance of being able to take over.

Then there is the Libya factor. America and Britain are reluctant to arm the rebels because of what happened when they armed the opposition groups in Libya last year - turning Tripoli, the capital, into a playground for mafia militias. “We armed doctors, intellectuals, shopkeepers with weapons,” an American diplomat told a reporter in Tunis this week, “and then the whole place went feral. We don't want that to happen again.”

The Tunis conference is essentially the best of the UN at work - though without adopting the the seal of Security Council approval for fear of further enraging Russia and China. The first move is to despatch one of the UN's best negotiators ever - former Secretary General Kofi Annan - to talk to the regime in Damascus about ceasefire and humanitarian convoys. He has acknowledged it is a tough call. For a start, any humanitarian convoy would have to be heavily armed, such is the basic lawlessness across the country: it went ‘feral’ months ago.

Any conversation with Bashar al-Assad is likely to prove a dialogue of the deaf. The president and his military brother and cousins seem to want to go on shelling, bombing and sniping until the ammunition runs out. · 

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