FORMER United Nations (UN) secretary-general Kofi Annan's resignation last week as special peace envoy to Syria of the UN and Arab League highlights the complexity of the conflict, which has escalated into civil war despite international efforts to find a peaceful solution.
Mr Annan's frustration with the "finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council" was abundantly clear from his resignation statement, in which he not only decried the Syrian government's intransigence, the rebels' increasing militancy and atrocities committed by both sides, but also cast doubt on whether a diplomatic solution was still possible due to divisions in Syria.
"Without serious, purposeful and united international pressure, including from the powers of the region, it is impossible for me, or anyone, to compel the Syrian government in the first place, and also the opposition, to take the steps necessary to begin a political process," he said.
There are now also question marks over the future of the UN observer mission to Syria, whose mandate expires on August 19 but which suspended most of its work in mid-June due to escalating fighting. It seems unlikely that the UN will renew the mission's mandate now that Mr Annan's six-point peace plan has come to naught and there is more violence. The plan called for a cease-fire as a prelude to talks on a political transition to democracy, but it never got off home base.
The concern now is that, with Russia and China pitted against the other three permanent members of the UN Security Council - the US, UK and France - and prepared to use their veto powers to prevent any sort of officially sanctioned armed intervention in Syria, the stage is set for a full-blown civil war, with both sides receiving outside support.
This raises the spectre of a mini Cold War being fought in Syria by proxy; Russia is already a major supplier of arms to the Syrian government, and it is an open secret that the Western powers have given the thumbs up to Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia supplying the rebels with more modern equipment, including heavy weaponry. This almost certainly accounts for both the escalation in fighting and the fact that the rebels have at times been able to take on government soldiers armed with sophisticated weapons, including tanks, and win.
Regional powers are also getting more and more involved, with Turkey in particular playing a key role in supporting the rebels and providing safe havens across its borders, while Iran stands firmly behind President Bashar al-Assad. As tends to happen in this part of the world, the divide is occurring along Sunni and Shiite Muslim lines, which immediately invokes images of the prolonged Lebanese civil war.
"At this point of the conflict it is difficult not to say that the international dimension of the Syrian conflict precedes the domestic one," Reuters quotes Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy as saying. This implies that even if the rebels are able to defeat the Syrian army and overthrow Mr Assad, their allegiance to different groups of outside supporters means there is little prospect of them being united enough to form a viable alternative government. The world needs to come to terms with the fact that unless the international community finds consensus on how to deal with the Syrian question, an open-ended sectarian conflict is the most likely outcome.
South Africa's diplomatic stance towards Syria has been fiercely criticised both at home and in the West, especially after it abstained as a nonpermanent member of the Security Council from voting on a resolution drafted by the UK, on the basis that it was not "balanced". Specifically, South Africa objected to the fact that the resolution called for measures against the Syrian government, but not against the rebels.
While such fence-sitting will certainly not help find solutions to the impasse, it is justified in the circumstances. As Department of International Relations deputy director-general Clayson Monyela pointed out in a letter to Business Day last week, chapter seven of the UN Charter mandates the Security Council to address the conduct of all parties to a conflict equally. As much as democrats may abhor the Assad dictatorship and accept that responsibility for the conflict lies primarily with him, there is no getting away from the fact that the rebels have committed some heinous acts, including wholesale executions of captured soldiers. This should be condemned not only as a matter of principle, but to avoid replacing one brutal regime with another.
That said, South Africa's "principled and consistent" stance also borders on naivety. Calling for a "Syrian-led, negotiated, all-inclusive dialogue" is meaningless in the circumstances, and putting its faith in Mr Annan's plan is clearly no longer a viable strategy. Violence has reached the point where emphasising dialogue is impractical. As Aaron Miller of the US-based Wilson Centre research group put it, there has been "too much blood spilled for a negotiated settlement between the Assads and the rebels, and not enough for foreign intervention to pressure the Assads to leave".
With UN monitors warning that the build-up of military hardware in and around Syria's biggest city, Aleppo, implies that a major battle will soon be fought there, there is every prospect that a lot more blood is about to be spilled. At some point South Africa is going to have to get off the fence and support international efforts to remove Mr Assad by force, even as it continues to insist that the rebels' excesses be kept in check.