International concern over Syria is growing more urgent after the latest massacre of civilians, with France threatening military action and Egypt pushing for regional talks that would take the controversial step of including Iran.
Worsening violence may outstrip any renewed peace efforts. Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations chief, demanded an inquiry on Monday after hundreds were killed in the town of Daraya over the weekend and evidence mounted that many victims had been systematically executed.
The conflict escalated further on Monday as a regime helicopter went down in a ball of flames, the second aircraft shot down in two weeks, and government air strikes against rebellious neighbourhoods moved closer than ever to the embattled capital.
Early reports of Monday’s attacks by fighter jets against the eastern suburbs of Damascus described about 60 killed, in another exceptionally bloody day.
With thousands of refugees massing on Syria’s borders and hints of sectarian cleansing emerging from the scene of recent massacres, regional and international powers are trying new approaches after 18 months of failed diplomacy.
A tougher stand from Western countries emerged in a speech on Monday from French President François Hollande, who warned that any use of chemical weapons by the regime would trigger “direct intervention.” President Barack Obama issued a similar warning earlier this month.
Mr. Hollande offered what could be a powerful incentive to the fractured opposition groups, saying the French government will immediately recognize a new provisional government if they can finally unite to agree on one.
His speech was greeted with caution in Washington, where a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department said that Syrians would decide for themselves when to form a new government.
Mr. Hollande also expressed favour for a plan to carve out so-called buffer zones within Syria for the protection of displaced people, which would presumably require military action against the regime.
Turkey has been pushing the buffer-zone concept as it struggles to deal with the human flood from its troubled neighbour, hastily building new camps but still leaving an estimated 10,000 people stranded on the dangerous border. The United Nations Children’s Fund issued an urgent appeal on Monday for funds to shelter fleeing Syrians. The UN refugee agency said on Friday that more than 200,000 Syrian refugees have escaped to neighbouring countries and registered as refugees, far exceeding projected numbers.
The latest plan for ending the war came from the fledgling Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Egypt, which appears to be softening decades of hostility toward Iran and encouraging Tehran to join a meeting of four key parties, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia. This would position Egypt as a mediator between countries with strong interests in Syrian affairs, each accused of supplying weapons and money to the different warring groups.
The United States and its Western allies have been cool toward talking with Iran about solutions in Syria, seeking to isolate the regime in Tehran and prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. However, with the Syrian conflict spiralling into a Sunni-Shia proxy war that pits Iran against Turkey and the Gulf states, some regional powers see no alternative to engagement. Iran hosts a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement on Wednesday, which will attract envoys from 120 nations and feature an appearance by Mr. Ban himself, whose plans to visit Tehran have riled some Western commentators.
Strong headwinds will also face Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi when he lands in Tehran this week. His plan for regional talks may have generated more hopes than the moribund UN peace process, which stalled as lead envoy Kofi Annan stepped down earlier this month and the UN and Arab League-sponsored observer mission packed up and left Syria. But several hurdles to diplomacy stood out amid recent developments.
Iran, a majority Shia nation, says it’s willing to join the talks proposed by Egypt, and described Mr. Morsi as “one of the most important guests” at the upcoming summit. That doesn’t mean the regime shows any hint of abandoning its long-standing patronage of Damascus. The official Iranian news agency, IRNA, reported that a senior Iranian envoy visited Syria this week and offered expanded ties and unwavering support. Nor do the Sunni supporters of the rebellion – Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia – appear willing to back down.
Fears of instability spreading in the region may also preoccupy regional powers as they sit down to talk. Turkey’s approach to the Syrian crisis has increasingly been coloured by the fact that Kurdish militants are seizing this moment of crisis and trying to fight their way to a homeland along the border. Iraq has shut down border posts and moved extra troops into the area, amid reported skirmishes along the frontier.
The mere fact of Mr. Morsi setting foot in Tehran is a diplomatic coup for Iran, after ties broke down between Iran and Egypt in the 1980s. The assassin of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat is still revered as a hero in Iran, where a street was named in his honour. Mr. Morsi may have little in common with his predecessor Mr. Sadat, but he needs to overcome decades of mistrust in Iran before persuading the country to change a key part of its foreign policy.