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Hope for peace in Syria fades as Russia backs away

There was a moment of hope, a week ago, that there could yet be a negotiated resolution to the Syrian civil war. That hope now appears ended, with key Syrian government ally Russia backing away from what could have been international agreement on the need end the war.

Instead, the Syrian war is increasingly spilling across borders, with the Lebanese-based Hezbollah militia openly siding with the Syrian government by joining in the attack on the town of Qusair, Syria shelling the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Jordan in particular buckling under the weight of more than 400,000 refugees.

The Syrian government’s attack on Qusair, near the border with northern Lebanon, is reported to be the heaviest artillery assault of the war. Anti-Assad regime forces still hold the town but are struggling, and its loss will put further pressure on the nearby hold-out city of Homs, also the scene of heavy fighting between Syria’s opposing forces.

Should Qusair fall, it will open a route for the Syrian regime between Damascus in the south and the sea ports at Al Hamidiyah and the Russian-based Tartus. The heavy fighting follows President Bashar al-Assad taking a hard line on the possibility of ending the civil war in an interview last weekend.

The fighting also follows the reporting drying up of weapons supplies to the anti-Assad forces. The reduced flow of weapons is a result of increasing concerns that they could fall into the hands of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Brigade and aligned factions, as well as as result of reports of atrocities on the part of both pro and anti-Assad forces.

Assad has said he will not negotiate with "terrorists", meaning forces arrayed against his regime, and says he plans to stand for "re-election" in 2014. Assad’s statement came a day after the US criticised Russia for supplying rockets to Syrian government forces.

Russia’s supply of the rockets was in apparent contradiction of the agreement between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry early in May, to push for a Syria peace conference in June. One reading of Russia’s position is that it will support peace talks in June, but only if it can strengthen the hand of the Assad regime ahead of such negotiations.

At this stage, however, Assad is not indicating that he will participate. Anti-Assad forces, meanwhile, see his resignation as a key condition for the talks to succeed. France has also said it will boycott the talks if Assad ally Iran is invited to participate in the talks process, which Russia is insisting upon.

With the anti-Assad forces now clearly divided between the Free Syrian Army and the al-Qaeda affiliates and Western support wavering, Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers are feeling increasingly confident of turning the tide in the war. It may be, however, that this is but another twist in an increasingly complicated, bitter and prolonged war.

Boston and the expanding danger of Chechen Islamist jihad

The media attention focused on the Boston Marathon bombers has continued to emphasise their Chechen origins, but there has been little investigation as to why the brothers attacked such a popular, internationally oriented gathering. One clue might lie with the longstanding conflict in the remote region of Chechnya.

Two Chechen-born, US naturalised brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have been identified as suspects in the bombing. Tamerlan, named after the 14th century Turkish-Mongol leader who established an empire stretching from Turkey to Tibet, and Dzhokhar, enjoying the name of the first leader of the post-Soviet break-away Chechen state, are thought to be linked to a 12-strong terrorist sleeper cell.

The FBI had interviewed Tamerlan two years ago regarding his interest in jihadist Islam after the agency was tipped off by the Russian government he could be a security threat. Nothing, however, was found to hold him. In January last year, Tamerlan returned to his native Chechnya and to nearby radicalised Dagestan for several months. He returned as a ready and waiting jihadist.

There is no particular connection between Chechnya, Dagestan and the US, nor has the US a history of involvement in the area. Chechen terrorist attacks outside Chechnya have been directed at Russia, and Russia and the US have long pursued very different and often competing foreign policy agendas. At a different stage of the Chechens' struggle with Russia, the US might even have been seen as an ally.

Along with the rest of central Asia, Chechnya came under Mongol rule from the 13th century but, when the Mongol empire collapsed, it came under Russian domination. In order to counter this new invader, the Chechens sought the protection of the Ottoman Empire and converted to Sunni Islam. By the late 18th century, Russia had expanded into the Caucasus region, formally incorporating Chechnya in the early 1800s. The Chechens rebelled against Russia during the 19th century and whenever Russia, or its successor, the Soviet Union, was weak. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Chechnya again pushed for independence, but its role as a key hub in Russia’s oil industry led to Russian repression and two brutal wars in which war crimes became commonplace.

Islam and national identity had long been fused in Chechnya and increasingly melded with jihadist Islam. Over the past 20 years, a radical jihadi ideology took over from the nationalist cause. Chechen jihadists are now found in jihadist war zones as far apart as Afghanistan and Mali in West Africa. Just as London experienced home-grown Islamist terrorism in 2005, it appears that Boston has experienced a similar attack.

But while the world increasingly focuses on the backstory of the Boston bombers, its view is distracted from events elsewhere. On the day three people were killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, 10 people were killed in terrorist bombings in Iraq and 75 the day after, with hundreds more injuries. Six more were killed the day after that. On the same day, around 160 people, including 30 children, were killed in Syria, and again hundreds more were injured. This is not to mention so many other places in the world regularly and consistently racked by violence.

The Boston bombing has caused the West to sit up and take notice. Again. But complacency and a limited perspective sometimes mean it misses the bigger and much more troubling picture.

Like Cambodia, Syria is increasingly turning into a proxy war

It had elements from the outset, but the war in Syria is looking more like a war by proxy between outside interests. It may be that it can now only be resolved from outside.

Most wars are proxies to some extent, perhaps the most notorious recent war being the three-cornered contest in Cambodia between 1978 and 1992. Syria is now starting to look like such a multi-faceted contest, but perhaps with even greater potential for complication.

The air attack last week by Israel against a Syrian military target raised the spectre of a wider conflagration. Initial reports said the target was a convoy that was presumed to be carrying guided surface-to-air missiles to Syria's Hezbollah allies in Lebanon. However, reports now indicate the target was a military research centre at Jamraya, north-west of Damascus about 15 kilometres from the Lebanese border.

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