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US attention still focused on Syria

26 July 2013


Meeting place: an aerial view of the Zaatari refugee camp, near the Jordanian city of Mafraq, about five miles from the Jordan-Syria border. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, met six repre­senta­tives of its 115,000 population when he visited the camp on Thursday of last week

Meeting place: an aerial view of the Zaatari refugee camp, near the Jordanian city of Mafraq, about five miles from the Jordan-Syria border. The US ...

THE Obama administration's satisfaction at having at last persuaded the Israelis and Palestinians to return to negotiations cannot camouflage the fact that the worsening crisis in Syria continues to attract most of its attention in the Middle East.

The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, saw one aspect of that crisis when he visited a camp in northern Jordan containing Syrian refugees. Some of them berated Mr Kerry for the failure of the United States and the international community to take steps to end the bloodshed.

One woman shouted at him: "What are you waiting for? The US, as a superpower, can change the equation in Syria in 30 minutes after you return to Washington." If nothing had changed at the end of Ramadan, in three weeks from now, "we will return to Syria and we will fight with knives," she said.

Mr Kerry acknowledged later that the Syrian refugees were "frustrated and angry at the world for not stepping in and helping. I explained to them I don't think it's as cut and dry and as simple as some of them look at it. But if I were in their shoes, I would be looking for help from wherever I could find it."

Thus far, the United States has provided financial help to countries hosting Syrian refugees, and has started sending non-lethal military equipment to certain rebel groups. The Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, has outlined five options for stepping up the level of assistance, including the launching of limited air strikes, and the creation of safe buffer-zones inside Syria. He emphasised, however, that using force in Syria would constitute an act of war, and both the cost and the likely after-effects should be borne in mind.

But, as the world dithers, the plight of Syrians becomes ever more serious. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, said that about 6000 Syrians were fleeing the country every day - a "frightening rate" not witnessed since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Close to seven million Syrians needed urgent assistance.

The UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonović, said that an average of 5000 people were being killed each month in Syria, marking "a drastic deterioration of the conflict. In Syria today, serious human-rights abuses, war crimes, and crimes against humanity are the rule." The UN also says that a further £2 billion is required to provide aid to Syria and neighbouring states before the end of this year. For its part, the World Bank has announced a £98-million loan to Jordan, where about half a million refugees remain stranded.

The uncertainty in the US about what action, if any, to take in Syria is matched by scepticism in the Middle East about the latest attempt to revive the Arab-Israeli peace efforts, and its chances of success. The last direct negotiations broke down in late 2010 over the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, when Israel refused to agree to America's request for a freeze.

While Mr Kerry was understandably elated that days of intense shuttle diplomacy had ended with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, agreeing that talks should resume, there is little optimism among the communities that they represent.

Commentators on both sides share the view that it was more a case of neither leader's wanting to be the one to refuse talks, rather than any realistic prospect of success, which forced them back to the negotiating table.

Israel's insistence on the continuation of settlement activity in the West Bank, and its total control of Jerusalem, will present one set of obstacles. The Palestinians' demands that Jerusalem should be the capital of an independent Palestine, and that Israel return to the pre-1967 borders, will present another.

The question which crisis will be resolved first - Syria or the Arab-Israel dispute - is not one on which to place a bet.

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