It is difficult to find anything positive to say about the awful situation in Syria. All one can say is that it is starting to resemble a re-run of the conflict in Yugoslavia.
In Yugoslavia, we had a country that, like Syria, was a patchwork quilt of different ethnic groups and religions. In Yugoslavia the west was very slow to react to the growing crisis. Had NATO stood up to the likes of Milosevic earlier (notably during the early stage of the conflict, when it was just Croatia and Serbia) then its possible things could have been nipped in the bud. Instead the conflict spilled into Bosnia with scenes and events reminiscent of nazi occupied Europe played out in the country.
And as in Yugoslavia, one of the reasons for western dithering was a fear of upsetting the Serb’s Russian allies. Similarly in Syria, there was a brief window of opportunity where western intervention could have had an effect. I suspect that if, during the initial shelling of Homs, NATO had acted, that this would have had the desired effect of making sure the Syrian military stepped back from the abyss.
Indeed it is possible that some in the army may have calculated that Assad was now more a liability than a help, ousted him from power and tired to negotiate with the rebel forces. While there’s no guarantee such negotiations would have succeeded, the natural pause they would have created in the conflict would have perhaps spared Syria the wider ethnic conflict now on-going.
But, like I said all of this is hypothetical scenario, because the window of opportunity where western intervention would have had any positive effect has now long since passed.
Arming the rebels is something I’m dubious about, given the not unrealistic probability they’ll end up in the hands of Islamic extremists or ethnically cleansing death squads on one side or the other. Indeed exactly how a couple of rifles and bullets are going to allow the rebels to take on an army with access to tanks and aircraft I do not know. That is unless the west is prepared to give the rebels the sort of fire power that would actually make a strategic difference (e.g. anti-tank or anti-aircraft missiles, heavy weapons, GPS units, satellite phones, etc.) which would probably not be to the liking of Israel.
As far as the proposed peace talks, I hate to sound all negative but this was tried in Yugoslavia and it didn’t work, largely because the Serb’s knew they had the Russians backing them up. Similarly does anyone honestly think the Syrian government is going to take any peace talks seriously when they know the Russians are supporting them. The only time Milosevic took such talks seriously was after NATO launched a bombing campaign against them.
And of course we all know how Yugoslavia eventually finished, with western peacekeepers in on the ground. As things stand this is the fate I see for Yugoslavia, a combination of peacekeepers from NATO (likely Turkish led) backed up by Western friendly Arab nations and Russian peacekeepers inside Syria, probably for a decade or two.
Indeed perhaps this serves as an obvious way for us to, as it were, scare Putin straight. Point out to him that the rebels aren’t going to pack up and go home, nor is the Assad regime (that’s the problem with civil wars, they are at home!) and the likely outcome of further conflict is eventually going to be Russian troops spending the next couple of years refereeing suicide bombing competitions.
The Russians need to not only get the Syrian government to commit to peace talks, but to lean on them to take them seriously…and make sure part of that process involves Assad “retiring” in some capacity….before someone else “retires” him “with extreme prejudice“.