(MENAFN - Arab News) It's been more than three weeks now since Syrian government forces launched a ferocious assault on the rebellious city of Homs.
Besieged and cut off from the rest of the world, the residents of Baba Amr and other neighborhoods of the city in the Syrian heartland have been holding under relentless shelling from army tanks and artillery. Hundreds of civilians, including women and children, have perished as a result according to eyewitnesses and few independent journalists who managed to report from the stricken areas. With no electricity, water, food and medical supplies a humanitarian crisis has erupted in Homs and other besieged towns and villages across the country.
Government-military escalation comes in the wake of the defeat of a UN Security Council draft resolution earlier this month adopting an Arab peace proposal that calls on President Bashar Assad to abdicate. Envoys from Russia and China, the two countries that vetoed the resolution, to Damascus have failed to persuade the regime to stop its onslaught and allow for a political solution to the 11-month-old anti-government uprising. According to Syrian opposition figures and Western officials the double veto has given the government the green light to crush the popular revolt by any means necessary. But after more than three weeks of bloodshed government forces are yet to achieve their goal. In the meantime, Arab and Western governments are debating ways to support Syrian opposition short of arming it. Russia and China are opposed to military intervention, but so are the United States and most European countries. But on Sunday two US Republican senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, proposed a series of diplomatic, humanitarian and military aid proposals that would commit the Obama administration to siding with the Syrian opposition. They said rebel fighters deserved to be armed and that helping them take on the Syrian government would aid Washington's efforts to weaken Iran.
But Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and top military adviser to President Obama, told CNN on Sunday that "it's premature to make a decision to arm the opposition movement in Syria, because I would challenge anyone to clearly identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point."
In the aftermath of the Libyan case, when NATO provided aerial cover and logistical support to rebels on the ground, Western governments are hesitant to do the same in Syria. That position could change at any time, but in an election year President Obama will be careful not to commit to a new military adventure. Between the Libyan and Iraqi models, the latter representing direct military involvement, some analysts are talking of the Afghanistan case of the early 1980s when Congress financed covert operations to arm the Mujahideen. Such operations were so successful that they were credited for driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan.
But that was during the Cold War. Today the situation is different although Britain's Foreign Minister William Hague warned recently that Iran's drive to get nuclear weapons will plunge the world into "a new Cold War." Iran is Syria's closest regional ally, which is now involved in a dangerous standoff with the West over its nuclear program. It is difficult to disassociate Syria from the Iran conflict, as McCain and Graham pointed out. There are other regional players who have a stake in the outcome of the Syrian crisis. Turkey and the Arab League have both sided with the Syrian opposition, particularly the Syrian National Council (SNC), which represents Syria's anti-Assad forces outside. The Arab League has suspended its observers' mission task force and is instead seeking UN help to dispatch an international peacekeeping force to Syria. Ankara plays host to Syrian opposition and leaders of the Free Syrian Army whose numbers have been increasing through defections in the past few weeks.
On the other hand, Damascus has been reporting that Al-Qaeda members are now at large in rebellious cities and towns. According to press reports at least 400 Al-Qaeda activists have crossed into Syria from Iraq. Free Syrian Army members have engaged government forces in Idlib in the northwest and Deraa in the south. Government sources say armed militants are in control in some of Homs' neighborhoods such as Baba Amr.
Syria is but a step away from a civil war and the opposition is divided. It is difficult to verify claims that Al-Qaeda members are now active inside Syria. A recent attack against security headquarters in Aleppo, Syria's second largest city has been blamed on suicide bombers. The opposition says that the government has released hundreds of radicals from jail in order to bolster claims that Al-Qaeda is now active in Syria.
This only underlines the complexity of the Syrian situation with its sectarian fissures, geopolitical undercurrents and divided opposition. Meanwhile, President Assad is holding a referendum on a new constitution on Feb. 26 followed by a multi-party election. The opposition dismissed it as a ploy. It is difficult to contemplate how the referendum will take place when most Syrian cities and towns, including parts of the capital, are under siege.
Syria will test Western relations with Russia and, to a lesser extent, China. The Obama administration will probably bow under internal pressure and adopt a plan to support and arm the opposition. Syria is teetering on the brink of a civil war and external powers can do nothing to prevent this.