First of all, the Islamist Palestinian faction Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and 1.5 million people, has switched sides in the Syria conflict. In so doing, Hamas has erased the one major exception to the rule that regional alliances follow the Sunni-Shi’ite divide. Hamas had been a Sunni Islamist organization in an alliance with a Shi’ite-oriented bloc made up of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah.
Until recently Hamas’s top leader lived in Damascus under protection of the Assad government, but recently he moved out of Syria, and Hamas has sided with the Syrian opposition. The leader’s latest statement was delivered in Egypt, which may become Hamas’s new external supporter, replacing Iran. Hamas’s roots originally grew out of Egypt’s Islamic Brotherhood, which made it the enemy of Egypt’s government under Hosni Mubarak, who had repressed the Brotherhood for decades in Egypt. Now the Brotherhood in Egypt dominates the new parliament and is likely to see Hamas more sympathetically.
Meanwhile, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been appointed as the UN/African Union joint special envoy to the Syria conflict. It is a good choice, as he commands respect globally as a moral voice and knows the Assad regime from past interactions. Annan’s last such mission helped quell the violent aftermath of disputed elections in Kenya in 2008. Annan held talks with the foreign ministers of Iran and France, in Geneva where he is attending the opening of a UN human rights session. Syria’s best hope is some kind of cease-fire and negotiated agreement, perhaps similar to Yemen’s. If that is ever to be, someone has to get the two sides to an agreement, and if anyone can (which is unclear), Annan can.
And in Tunis on Friday, the “Friends of Syria” had its first meeting, with the major countries opposed to Assad in attendance. The group recognized the opposition Syrian National Council as “a” (not necessarily the only) legitimate representative of the Syrian people. One problem the Friends face is the division and lack of coordination in the Syrian opposition. They called on the UN to prepare for a peacekeeping mission in Syria if the need for one arises. (Currently there is no peace to keep.)
Hillary Clinton took the occasion to call out Russia and China for vetoing the recent UNSC resolution that would have called for Assad’s resignation. Clinton called the vetoes “despicable.” China has responded by calling that kind of language “unacceptable” and by reminding Clinton that, basically, the USA has a lot of nerve criticizing others about Syria after what it did in Iraq right next door.
In Syria itself, the grim news keeps coming, especially for the civilians being shelled and sniped at constantly in the city of Homs, the heart of the opposition. Incongruously, in the middle of this massacre, Syrians voted by a 9-to-1 margin in a referendum to approve a revised constitution — a vote dismissed as meaningless by the Syrian opposition and the West. The bombardment of Homs killed two western journalists last week, and efforts to evacuate the wounded have been largely unsuccessful so far. The situation is getting only more desperate, and “the whole world is watching” thanks to cellphone footage posted to the Internet.
European Union countries have added new sanctions against the Syrian regime. Economic sanctions might help, but seem unlikely to cause the regime to change course. Overall, the Friends know what they want — Assad to stop the slaughter — but don’t have much idea how to get it.