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
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
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.