By Joseph Logan
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria's victory in dodging a U.N. resolution it deemed a license for regime change may only escalate its internal conflict into a full-fledged civil war that many analysts believe President Bashar al-Assad cannot ultimately win.
With the collapse of the sole diplomatic effort recognized by Assad's foes - both armed and in a split civilian opposition, the stage is set for deeper diplomatic isolation of Syria and perhaps new flows of arms and money to Syria's insurgents.
"The worst effect of the veto is that it inflames the civil war, intensifies it. We're no longer talking about a hypothetical civil war. We're now in the middle of a civil war. It's started," said Nabil Boumonsef, a columnist with Lebanon's an-Nahar daily.
Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution on Saturday that sought backing for an Arab League proposal to end 11 months of bloodshed in Syria by urging Assad to pull troops from cities and allow a political transition to start.
The defeat of the measure a day after Assad's opponents reported that his forces had killed over 200 people with artillery fire on the city of Homs prompted Western vows to ramp up pressure on Assad until he quits power.
By abetting violence, the veto may bolster Damascus's contention that it is fighting an Islamist insurgency funded and directed by foes in Gulf Arab states, but offers no alternate political path out of the greatest crisis Syria has faced in the 41 years of the Assad family's dynastic rule, analyst say.
"This (veto) is obviously an endorsement of the regime's approach to the crisis which, over the last 11 months, has brought the country to the brink," said Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group.
"We can expect the regime to push ahead along the same lines, which will raise the prospect of a civil war."
RUSSIAN MEDIATION, ABSENT OPPOSITION
Russia, which sells Syria arms and maintains a military base on its coast, maintained that approving the resolution would have fanned the conflict through its failure to blame opposition groups equally for the bloodshed, which the United Nations says it can no longer track after 5,000 deaths.
Moscow will offer its own mediation - in the person of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and its intelligence chief who are to meet Assad on Tuesday, fulfilling a pledge last week to seek a negotiated end the bloodshed.
But that offer has already been rejected by the Syrian National Council (SNC) - the exiled dissident umbrella group which claims to speak for Syria's political opposition and has only a tenuous link to the rebel force of army defectors.
The SNC and decentralised cells of fighters in Syria alike have demanded Assad surrender power as a precondition for any negotiations, a prospect analysts believe Russia itself would not raise with Assad.
"Russia understands what the Syrian regime is going through; it has an inherent inability to adjust quickly on the ground," said Ayham Kamel, analyst with Eurasia Group risk consultancy.
"They encourage the Syrian regime to reform, but not remove all the structures. It's all about restructuring, not removal."
That approach rules out the key demand of the opposition, but it now looks to be making headway in a campaign to brand Assad a pariah, after Tunisia moved to expel his ambassador and withdraw recognition of Damascus.
"They may tell him to move just enough to get a political process going, but now I don't see how that's possible," said Middle East commentator Rami Khouri. "The opposition won't talk to him and he won't negotiate his own exit."
PROSPECT OF ARMING REBELS
With prospects for a negotiated solution dim, attention may turn to the balance of forces between rebels and Assad's army.
Some in the opposition say the army has acted with relative restraint - despite the increasing death toll - partly due to fear about empowering officers too far from ruling circles.
Defector forces - with a notional leader allowed to operate from nearby Turkey - recently thrust to the edge of the capital. Past government offensives have swollen their ranks and they may now find an audience for their case to be armed more heavily.
"If indeed armed struggle is the only option left on the table, there's a chance that opposition groups will procure the strategic depth that has been missing," said Harling.
Washington has couched its threat of greater pressure on Assad in terms of political transition only.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed on Sunday to dry up Syria's sources of weapons while supporting "the opposition's peaceful political plans for change."
Khouri noted the symbolic power U.S. ally Saudi Arabia has already exercised in the revolt against Assad, a member of a minority Shi'ite Muslim sect deemed heretical in the puritanical Sunni Islam that is a pillar of rule in the kingdom.
Riyadh, the self-styled steward of Sunni Islam, is deeply wary of the political upheaval gripping the Middle East and sent troops to Bahrain as it crushed pro-democracy protests last year. But the Saudis weighed in against Assad in August, when he cracked down on restive Syrian cities at the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The kingdom hosts a Syrian cleric, Adnan Arour, who left the country when Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, crushed his own Islamist insurrection, culminating in an attack on the city of Hama 30 years ago that left at least 10,000 dead.
The cleric has been granted air time on satellite outlets broadly loyal to Saudi Arabia to denounce Assad's rule in bitterly sectarian terms, calling at times for mass reprisal against the Alawite community from which he hails.
"The armed groups that are fighting against them look to be escalating, and I think you're going to find people around the world supporting them on some humanitarian basis but also militarily," Khouri said.
"There are concerns that the opposition is becoming a Saudi-Qatari proxy...if you have to choose, though, most people would rather have a liberated Syria with broad GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) influence than the Assad regime."
That escalation would ensure a long and bloody conflict, Boumonsef said. "The regime is still stronger on the ground, but we're heading to something like a balance of forces," he said.
"Once the logic of civil war takes hold somewhere, it's out of the hands of countries to stop it until their shared interest dictates so ... We're the best experts on this after the 15 years (of civil war) we lived through in Lebanon."
(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Dominic Evans; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
(This story was corrected in paragraph six to change “49 years” to “41 years”)