In a shabby suburban street in Aleppo, Syria’s second city, Abu Ahmed spoke reluctantly but long enough to show he held out no hope for an internationally-brokered solution to his country’s deepening crisis.
Nervous to be talking to a foreigner in an area where he said security forces had twice opened fire on protests during the previous week, he saw plans for a conference of world powers on Syria as irrelevant to the blood being spilled on the ground.
“No one can help,” he said, standing a short walk from graffiti denouncing President Bashar al-Assad’s alliance with Iran. “It’s like a conspiracy against the Syrian people. Part of the world is with the regime, the other part is with the people – and they fight each other.”
Abu Ahmed’s frustration with the international role in Syria’s crisis is widely echoed by supporters of both the opposition and – for sharply contrasting reasons – the regime. While some Syrians still feel the world can help and are desperate for it to do so, many people of varying political views see the country as a victim of international realpolitik.
The idea of world powers overseeing a transition to a national unity government, which is due to be debated in Geneva on Saturday, finds some support among Syrians – but faces the fundamental problem that Mr Assad’s opponents say they would never accept his involvement, while his supporters would not tolerate his exclusion.
“He has to stay until 2014,” said Ihab, an Aleppo shopworker, referring to the 97 per cent vote Mr Assad officially received in a 2007 referendum for a seven-year extension of the presidency he inherited from his late father in 2000. “Because we elected him and it was our choice.”
The meeting planned for Geneva is the latest set-piece in a tortuous and minimally productive 15 months of international diplomacy, as Mr Assad’s opponents in the west and Gulf have faced off against his supporters in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran. The only agreement reached so far, a peace plan drawn up by Kofi Annan, now lies in tatters, with violence raging around the country and 300 UN patrols grounded for the past fortnight because of security concerns.
A good number of Syrians now view the international community as guilty not just of deadlock but of bad faith in its failure to do more to stop a slaughter estimated to have claimed well over 10,000 lives. Some of this feeling divides obviously along ideological and humanitarian lines: while Mr Assad’s opponents attack Russia and China for blocking tougher UN action against a regime that has bombarded cities and is accused of multiple other atrocities, his supporters denounce the backing for the opposition’s increasingly violent military wing offered by some anti-Assad governments – most notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
But there is also a striking measure of agreement across the political spectrum that the conflict in Syria, a country with a long and painful history of foreign occupation, has once again become a proxy battle between international powers and their competing regional interests.
“Unfortunately this clash of civilisations is taking place on our soil,” said Fares al-Shehabi, chairman of the Aleppo Chamber of Industry, who is – he says unjustly – under European Union sanctions targeted at the Assad regime.
More optimistic Syrians say that whatever the failings of international policy so far, the transition plan to be discussed in Geneva could yet help. In a measure of how bad things are, some people even talk of Egypt’s much-condemned military government or Yemen’s foundering interim administration as models for bringing peace to Syria.
But Syria – unlike Egypt or Yemen – faces the additional problem that its president shows no sign of any willingness to step down as part of a compromise.
When asked if Mr Assad could be involved in any transitional arrangement, a group of anti-regime activists gathered in an Aleppo apartment just laughed. In a reflection of a wider nervousness about creeping sectarianism in Syria, they added that they also opposed the creation of an administration where – as in Iraq – positions were allocated according to religious and ethnic quotas.
“A government with several parties from the opposition and the regime is OK with us,” said Leyla, a student. “But we are really against having a government that is sectarian.”
As the international diplomats prepare to meet in one of the world’s most stable countries to discuss the implosion of a nation at the heart of the Middle East, perhaps their greatest task is to convince sceptical Syrians like Abu Ahmed that the latest talks can make any difference at all.
“The change is going to be from the inside, from the people,” said Abu Ahmed, bringing to a close a conversation that had only lasted a few minutes but was already becoming dangerously long. “Because the people are paying the price.”