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But even if he can’t win, Assad may have reason to believe, as he surveys the national and international battlefield he has created, that he can nonetheless fight to a messy stalemate. The difference between a draw and a defeat, for Assad, now amounts to this: Will he be at the table when a political solution to the conflict is negotiated?

The European Union on Monday announced new sanctions against Assad’s regime in support of demands that he end his assault on opposition strongholds and accept an Arab League plan that requires him to surrender power. But the EU measures amounted largely to an incremental tightening of those previously imposed. The meeting in Tunis last Friday of the “Friends of Syria” ad-hoc forum also confirmed that while Western and Arab powers concur on the need for Assad to step down — and before that, to halt his assaults on rebel-held areas and allow in humanitarian relief supplies — there is limited agreement on new strategies to pursue those goals.

Western powers have no appetite for direct military involvement in Syria, not only because of post-Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya intervention fatigue, but because the sectarian and regional political stakes in Syria’s conflict threaten region-wide chaos. Support for direct military intervention appears to be lacking even if those doing the fighting are not Western troops: Qatar failed in its efforts to persuade the Friends of Syria to back intervention by an Arab force that would invade Syria to open humanitarian corridors to besieged cities.

Qatar has since defaulted to the Saudi view that arming Syria’s rebels is, as the Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal put it, “an excellent idea”. The vociferous advocacy of the Gulf states for funnelling weapons to the insurgents reinforces widely held suspicions that they’re probably already doing so. There may even be some non-lethal aid from Western countries, including communications equipment, medical supplies, night-vision goggles and other such equipment, reaching rebel forces. But the Saudis, who reportedly walked out of the Friends of Syria forum at one point allegedly decrying its “inaction”, could not persuade the forum to endorse even that idea.

The US certainly remains sceptical of the proposal to send weapons to the opposition. “We don’t really know who it is that would be armed,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a CBS interview last weekend, noting the amorphous nature of the opposition and the fact that some of its elements are inimical to US foreign policy goals.  The Syrian opposition had the backing of al-Qaeda and the Palestinian Islamist organisation Hamas, she said, raising the question of who the US would be supporting if it provided arms.

“Despite the great pleas that we hear from those people who are being ruthlessly assaulted by Assad, you don’t see uprisings across Syria the way you did in Libya,” she continued. “You don’t see militias forming in places where the Syrian military is not, trying to get to Homs… So if you’re a military planner or if you’re a Secretary of State and you’re trying to figure out do you have the elements of an opposition that is actually viable, that we don’t see.”

The US and its allies may have hoped to crown the Syrian National Council (SNC) as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, as they did with the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council ahead of the intervention in Libya last year, but the fact that the Tunis gathering hailed the SNC as “a” rather than “the” representative of the Syrian people was telling.

 

The extent of the SNC’s authority on the ground remains questionable, and even its influence over the Free Syrian Army — the umbrella insurgent organisation of defectors from the regime’s army and civilian volunteers, whose own control over fighting units on the ground appears to be limited — is far from established.

 

Some have argued that providing arms will help to organise the rebellion and build up the political authority of the SNC leadership under whose auspices such arms would be provided. But Clinton’s concerns may have been underscored by Sunday’s news that some of the SNC’s most senior leaders had broken away to form the Syrian Patriotic Group, challenging the effectiveness of the SNC and giving less equivocal backing to armed rebellion.

All sides in Syria, then, appear to be hunkering down for a protracted civil war — a conflict of a type that, given the external backing on which the combatants rely, is unlikely to end in a rout by either side. — Time.com.

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