Faint hope of Syria breakthrough despite signs

PARIS (AFP) - After two years largely on the sidelines, the international community is finally showing signs of taking action on Syria's escalating conflict but analysts say it may be a case of too little too late.

Foreign efforts to stem the country's conflict have been paralysed since March 2011 protests against President Bashar al-Assad sparked a crackdown, armed uprising and eventually a full-blown civil war.

The rising tide of violence - with more than 70,000 killed and one million fleeing the country - has done little to push foreign powers to overcome deep divisions on how to tackle the crisis.

"The diplomacy has very clearly not kept up with the situation on the ground," said Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Doha Center, describing the Western and Arab nations backing Syria's opposition as a "Coalition of the Unwilling".

But analysts saw moves since last month, including British and US decisions to supply direct aid to rebel fighters battling Assad's regime, as tentative steps towards a new international response to the crisis.

"Things are starting to move... I have the feeling that people are starting to wake up," said Joseph Bahout, a Middle East expert and professor at Science Po in Paris.

"We're at less of an impasse than we were six months ago," agreed Christopher Phillips, a lecturer on the Middle East at the University of London.

"That sense of urgency has ratcheted up."

Mr Phillips said US President Barack Obama's election to a second term in November has freed his administration to act in the face of Syria's worsening humanitarian crisis.

Obama's newly minted secretary of state, John Kerry, gave the first sign of a US shift last month by announcing food and medical aid to the rebels and an extra $60 million in support to the country's political opposition.

Experts said the move was hardly a game-changer, but did send an important signal.

"The direct financing and recognition of the Free Syrian Army is an evolution in American thinking," a French diplomatic source said. "They have broken through a barrier." Britain went further on Wednesday, announcing it would send non-lethal military aid including body armour and armoured vehicles to the rebels.

"The fact remains that diplomacy is taking far too long and the prospect of an immediate breakthrough is slim," Foreign Secretary William Hague said while announcing the aid.

Analysts said that as well as helping the rebels, the aid aims to push Russia - Assad's key international ally - into budging on its steadfast support for the regime.

"They believe the Russians can influence the situation and they want the Russians to see that they're serious, playing ball," Mr Phillips said.

Moscow's support for Assad has been vital in keeping him in power, lending him continued legitimacy, blocking UN Security Council resolutions against him and maintaining the flow of Russian arms to his regime.

Backed by its foreign allies, the opposition has said Assad must step down before any talks can be held on ending the conflict, but Moscow has insisted on negotiations without any preconditions.

Western leaders have been increasing pressure on President Vladimir Putin, but experts said it would be difficult for Moscow to back down.

"The longer the situation lasts, the more difficult it is for Moscow to separate itself from Assad," said Alexey Malashenko, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center.

What's needed before diplomatic efforts can move forward, experts said, is an end to the stalemate that has seen the rebels make some gains but not yet pose a serious threat to the regime.

"There can be no political solution without a change in the balance of power on the ground," the French diplomat said. "Damascus needs to be afraid." "If Moscow realises that basically its client has decisively lost, then new diplomatic options will suddenly open up," said Richard Gowan, a Syria expert at the Centre on International Cooperation at New York University.

Still, experts said more will need to be done if the opposition's main international backers in the United States, Europe and Arab world want to give the rebels a decisive edge.

Wary of weapons falling into the hands of the Islamic extremists who are playing an increasingly prominent role in the conflict, Washington and Europe have shied away from directly providing the rebels with arms.

And given the potential quagmire for foreign troops, analysts said the chances of an international military intervention in Syria were practically non-existent.

"At this point in time we're going to be stuck in an intensifying conflict," Mr Shaikh said. "I suspect that 2013 will probably be one of the bloodiest years we've had so far."