With growing demands for the international community to arm and support Syrian opposition groups, a regional expert speaking at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa has called on the United Nations to take the lead in encouraging dialogue among the multiplicity of stakeholder groups inside Syria.
“The region is on a knife-edge and if we are to prevent the conflict in Syria engulfing the region, we must bring together all those with a stake in Syria’s future to decide where their interests lie and arrive at a new equation for sharing power,” said Salman Shaikh, Director Brookings Doha Center, Qatar.
Alexander Aleinikoff, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, described the huge burden borne by neighbouring states now sheltering 1.5 million refugees. UN estimates suggest these numbers will double by the end of the year if the exodus continues at its current rate. “The priority now is to get the international community to end the violence of a conflict whose consequences will, in any event, be felt for years to come because, as in the Balkans after the wars there in the 1990s, refugees will be slow to return,” he said.
Aleinikoff defended the UN from criticisms that it is not doing enough inside the country to help people living in areas outside government control or to provide cross-border aid. “We would like to operate across lines inside the country and across borders, but we need the green light from either the UN Security Council or the Syrian government, and neither is forthcoming,” he said.
The moderate opposition, which is now the focus of Western efforts to change the equation on the ground, has little presence or credibility inside Syria, speakers said. “The weakness of the opposition in Syria is a direct result of the efforts of the Assad regime to decimate civil society, “ said Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director, MENA Division, Human Rights Watch. “If we don’t want more broken vases in the region, we need to look at the way other regimes treat civil society in their countries.”
“As people talk of peace they are actually preparing for war,” Shaikh said. “Listening to Senators McCain and Menendez at the World Economic Forum here one got the distinct impression that the consensus in the US is shifting towards influencing events on the battlefield, including through arms for the opposition and surgical air strikes,” he added.