The events of summer 2012 marked an important shift in the Syrian crisis. On July 15, the International Committee of the Red Cross classified the conflict as a civil war, as a way to warn against mounting battle-related casualties and, especially, the growing death toll from one-sided violence against civilians. The government’s retaliation to the first coordinated military offensive by insurgents outside peripheral areas since late July has been the harshest of all seen thus far, but it only radicalized its armed and unarmed opponents. As violence expands and becomes progressively more deadly, polarized, and sectarian, the conflict acquires the character of an all-out war for survival, especially, and increasingly so, for the regime and its remaining supporters.
One of the most striking phenomena, however, has been the widening gap and growing disconnect between the conflict’s internal dynamics and its international dimension. The latter itself is a mismatch between agitated political rhetoric, ambitions, and purported influence on Syria and a reluctance or inability in practice to go beyond “wait and see” policies. Despite all policy differences, this applies as much to the United States, the European Union, and the Arab League, as it does for Russia and China. Attempts to mediate a ceasefire as part of the UN-sponsored “Annan plan” failed as the plan embodied a compromise between key external stakeholders, not parties within Syria, on little more than the need to buy time. An even better reflection of this “wait and see” approach was the replacement of the UN monitoring mission, the mandate of which expired in mid-August, with the ambiguous combination of a token UN presence and the appointment as new UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria of Lakhdar Brahimi, the world’s chief authority on peacebuilding in theory and in practice.
This memo argues that the issue of what the international role in the Syria crisis should be – which remains the central focus of much international political rhetoric and media – is, and in the near future will remain, completely overwhelmed by the conflict’s internal dynamics. […]