The February 12 capture of an airfield near Aleppo by a Syrian rebel group is the first in which the insurgents have seized usable warplanes; it also marks a change in the rebels’ approach, from battles in cities — including Damascus — to attacks on military bases. A month earlier, rebels had taken the Taftanaz airfield in northern Syria. In response, government forces have launched air attacks on al-Jarrah, as they have done after previous rebel captures of airfields. Captured warplanes will strengthen the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) forces, because President Bashar al-Assad’s troops have so far been able to repulse ground-based rebel attacks by using their vast air power; it is not clear, however, if those pilots who have defected can fly the rebel-held machines. Meanwhile the civil war rages on, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay has given the U.N. Security Council a sharply increased estimate of the death toll, putting it at 70,000 since the civil war started in March 2011.
Political efforts continue, and on February 8, U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s deputy Mokhtar Lamani met the rebel Revolutionary Military Council near Damascus, and also talked with other civilian leaders. In addition, the SNC’s Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib has offered to meet government officials if the regime releases some 16,000 political prisoners and renews passports held by Syrians abroad. The odds against a settlement, however, are lengthening on both sides. Mr. Khatib’s move has angered other SNC members, not least because SNC president George Sabra himself narrowly escaped an assassination attempt near the Turkish border on February 11. The Coalition remains severely divided, and U.S. President Barack Obama has vetoed arming rebel forces. Furthermore, the minister for national reconciliation Ali Haidar first responded to Mr. Khatib by offering talks in another country, but then insisted that the opposition participate in a government dialogue initiative which has already started in Damascus; yet the former Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi, who defected ten weeks ago, says the violence and polarisation have left no place for “moderation and diplomacy.” At one level, the all-round intransigence now means the prospects for a peaceful settlement seem more difficult than ever. But the pursuit of military means by Damascus and its opponents — the latter backed by powerful regional powers — is hardly the answer. The Geneva plan, which builds on the earlier efforts of Kofi Annan, must be pursued seriously. The Russians back it and the U.S. too is on board. But somebody has to push the Syrian opposition to come on board.