Syria conflict: Hopes for peace conference may be dashed

BEIRUT— With violence increasingly spilling over Syria’s borders, refugees swamping its neighbors and new arms transfers to both sides on the horizon, a solution to the Syrian conflict has rarely seemed so urgent — and so far beyond reach.

U.S. and Russian officials this month raised hope for a peace conference that could lead to a transitional government and, eventually, free elections. The accord between Washington and Moscow, long at loggerheads on Syria, followed a United Nations-backed formula long ignored as outside powers on both sides pushed their Syrian proxies for victory.

It’s unclear now, however, whether the conference will even take place. Instead, more than two years after it began, the Syrian conflict shows signs of morphing into a sectarian-fueled conflagration that drags in neighboring nations and pits global powers and their allies against one another in the world’s most volatile region.

On Tuesday, backers of each side accused the other of hypocrisy over arms sales. The prospect of Britain and France arming Syrian rebels was met with a Russian threat to ship sophisticated antiaircraft weapons to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militant group, has also gotten more deeply involved. Last weekend, it declared de facto war on behalf of Assad, labeling the rebellion against his rule an existential threat. The Syrian rebels, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, vowed to take the war to Hezbollah’s homeland in Lebanon, where three soldiers were killed Tuesday in the latest incident of spillover violence.


Russia condemned the European Union’s decision Monday to end its arms embargo — opening the way for future weapons transfers to the rebels.

“The European Union is in fact pouring more fuel on the fire on this conflict,” Deputy Foreign Minster Sergei Ryabkov, told reporters in Moscow. Russia’s sale of state-of-the-art S-300 air defense missile systems to Syria would be a stabilizing factor that could restrain international “hotheads,” he said.

But supporters lauded Europe’s action as a means of pressuring Assad to agree to Western and opposition demands that he step down, the only viable outcome of the planned peace conference, according to U.S. officials and the Western-backed opposition.

R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of State during the George W. Bush administration, accused Russia of hypocrisy and cynicism. Burns, who is now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said lifting the EU embargo was a good idea because it put pressure on Assad “not to try to ride out the process without negotiating.”

Russia could be bluffing about the missile sales. For years, observers noted, Russia issued contradictory statements about whether it would follow through on an announced sale of S-300s to Iran, another transaction that drew strong international opposition. So far, Tehran has not received the missiles.

Still, Moscow was signaling its red line: Libya-style intervention, with low-flying Western fighting jets bombarding the presidential palace in Damascus, will not happen in Syria.

If the S-300 missiles were installed in Syria, analysts said, the deployment could remove from the table two options long favored by the opposition, the government of Turkey and others: a no fly zone or safe area inside Syria’s borders.

Israel indirectly threatened to attack any shipments of the advanced missile systems to Syria, issuing an unusual challenge to Moscow.

“The deliveries [of the S-300 missiles] have not taken place, I can attest to this,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told reporters Tuesday. “But, if by some misfortune, they arrive in Syria, we will know what to do.”

Israel is already reported to have launched three airstrikes on Syrian weapons facilities, the rationale being prevention of the missiles being transferred to Hezbollah, Assad’s longtime ally and Israel’s archenemy. But the strikes also gave Assad an opening to link the Syrian opposition to Israel, a theme seized upon by Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah chief, in explaining his group’s intervention Syria.

The prospective Russian sales of advanced weapons to Syria represent “a massive game-changer,” said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. If the missiles are transferred, said Cordesman, “it virtually ensures that the U.S.-Russian talks will be meaningless.”

From the Russian standpoint, it is the European lifting of the arms embargo that threatens to torpedo the proposed peace talks, which are tentatively slated to be held next month in Geneva. The opposition now has no incentive to seek peace, knowing that Britain and France may be providing new caches of weapons in a few months.

“This decision dooms the conference to failure,” said Igor Korotchenko, editor in chief of Russia’s National Defense monthly journal.

If the peace conference comes off, Assad would arrive with more leverage than at any time in recent months. Government battlefield victories have led some analysts to reconsider projections that his government wouldn’t survive 2013. In a recent interview with Argentine journalists, Assad again rejected calls that he step down and indicated that he intended to be a candidate in presidential polling scheduled for next year.

The opposition, meantime, remains a fractious conglomeration of disparate rebel bands and quarreling exile groups. Five days of dissident meetings in Istanbul, Turkey, have yet to yield definitive word on who would represent the opposition in the Geneva conference, should the event even take place.

The conflict is increasingly felt outside Syria’s borders.

It has rocked neighboring Lebanon, where memories of the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 and devastated the small nation are still fresh in many minds. For more than a week, pro- and anti-Assad factions have been engaging in running gun battles in the northern city of Tripoli, with more than two dozen reported dead.

On Sunday, a pair of rockets landed in a southern Beirut district considered a stronghold of Hezbollah, an attack widely seen as a message that its support of Assad would not go unanswered. Officials in Jordan, a key U.S. ally in the region, say the nation is breaking under a flow of refugees that now equals one-tenth of the country’s population. There is also concern that radical Islamists fighting in Syria could later take their battle to the kingdom.

“In Syria, a political solution is urgently needed to stop that country’s dangerous fragmentation and to resolve the dire refugee crisis,” King Abdullah II of Jordan said Saturday at an economic forum.

And in Iraq, Sunni protests against the Shiite-dominated government are widely thought to have received inspiration from the uprising against Assad. Arms and fighters are said to flow freely via the two nations’ long and porous border.

Even in prosperous Turkey, two car bombings this month in the southern province of Hatay galvanized opposition to Ankara’s extensive backing of the Syrian rebels. Many saw the attacks as “blow-back” from the government policy. Protesters at one of many anti-government rallies carried signs telling their leaders, “Hands off Syria.”

Times staff writers McDonnell reported from Beirut and Richter from Washington. Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.