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Thursday, February 09, 2012 

Syria: get used to our impotence.

There is only one way to describe you can describe the attack on the city of Homs by the Syrian army: it is nothing less than an attempt to crush the uprising against Bashar al-Assad through wholesale murder. Especially hard to take is that if Benghazi had been subject to a similar siege, rather than just a threatened one, it would have been incredibly difficult to oppose intervention in Libya on the same grounds as I did at the time.

Syria though, as we must always point out, is not Libya, just as Libya was not Iraq or Afghanistan. As predictable as the veto by Russia and China was at the UN security council last weekend, and as pathetic as the synthetic outrage from ourselves and the Americans has been since, it's indisputable that the veto has emboldened Assad in ordering the assault on Homs. This wasn't though the only factor: equally ill-judged was the withdrawal of the Arab League monitors whose simple presence meant that the regime couldn't take the gloves off in the way it now has.

That move was instigated by of all countries, Saudi Arabia, which gives an insight into the regional politics at play. Having urged the United States to attack Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities, it's little surprise that the Saudis alongside the Qataris and Emirate states are now trying to damage the Shia theocracy through removing from power their ally in Syria. While there is some natural concern at how the majority Sunnis are being persecuted by the minority Alawites, much of the approach of the Saudis is down to how if Assad were to fall it would help to isolate Iran. By equal measure, as Simon Tisdall points out, this is why Iran is determined to ensure Assad is not overthrown, and is doing so by probably collaborating outright with the crackdown by the regime. They do after all have experience in putting down a budding revolution by force.

The Russians also have much to lose should Assad now fall from power, as has been pointed out at length by more or less everyone. This doesn't alter the fact that if both Russia and China weren't outright lied to, they were most certainly misled by the NATO powers over Libya. The topic has been done to death, but UNSC 1973 most certainly did not authorise what became effective regime change, even if it was achieved purely through air power, the use of special forces and the NTC on the ground, armed and trained by the Qataris. Destroying artillery and tanks that posed a potential threat to civilians was one thing; bombing regular forces to soften them up before the advance of the rebel fighters was quite another, as were the attacks on retreating regime cadres and the onslaught Sirte was subjected to from the air. Accusing the Russians and Chinese of essentially allowing civil war to descend as the US ambassador Susan Rice did was the height of hypocrisy. NATO had no qualms whatsoever in picking sides when it came to the civil war in Libya, or indeed Afghanistan.

It is true that nothing in the proposed resolution would have allowed for anything remotely similar to the intervention in Libya. It was though nonetheless the first real opportunity for a protest by the Russians and Chinese on a resolution of a similar nature, and there doesn't seem to be anyone suggesting that it's Chinese interests in Syria that motivated their use of the veto, for the reason that they're relatively slight. Opinions similarly differ on how effective the resolution would have been had the Russian and Chinese abstained as they did on UNSC 1973; it would have done little other than endorse the peace plan proposed by the Arab League that Assad and his regime have already rejected with no sign of a reconsideration coming, with a UN sponsored observation of the planned ceasefire tacked on. It may well have influenced more in the army to defect, or persuaded one or two senior regime figures that the game was up as some decided in Libya, and also increased the regime's isolation; equally, it may have encouraged Assad to try and deliver a knock out blow to the resistance in the way he is doing now, before any further steps could be taken.

All this only underlines how few options we have for helping those who have risen against Assad. No one serious is advocating an intervention outside of UN auspices, and those suggesting Turkey might try its hand will be disappointed with how they have also ruled out military action. An insight into how some of those who go out on such limbs seem to have a distant relationship with reality is how Michael Weiss claims Syria has "only" 100,000 ground troops. Even if it's only half that number, taking into account defections and other wastage, that's still at least double the number Libya had. Syria can also rely as alluded to above on some support from Iran, especially when it comes to weaponry, with the country having more modern Russian equipment than the Soviet standard Libya had. There is also no safe buffer zone in Syria, as they at least admit, and it would be difficult to create one. Not impossible, but certainly difficult and with a potential cost in terms of lives considering the Syrian defences.

Similarly fraught with difficulty would be arming the Free Syrian Army, as Marc Lynch goes into great detail on. We know even less about the Syrian opposition than we did about the Libyan NTC, which basically means we know sweet F.A. It's rumoured that the Saudis and Qataris are already doing so, but the way the assault on Homs is going it seems doubtful whether those resisting can carry on doing so publicly for much longer. Longer term insurgency and guerilla warfare may well have to be resorted to.

Unpalatable as it is then, there is relatively little we can do other than up the diplomatic pressure and look to impose further sanctions, with the exception of encouraging the Arab League to continue its efforts to seek a transition. A beefed up observer mission could help to stop the bloodshed were it large enough, but this seems unlikely to be accepted.

Sadly, Syria has all the attributes which make an intervention near to impossible: a regime where most of the elite come from an ethnic minority that fears what would happen to it should the majority gain power; a large military with relatively modern equipment; an opposition without a strong base; a powerful ally well versed in putting down dissent and viscerally opposed to losing its friend; and no major natural resources that those intervening would potentially gain better access to. Unlike with democracies where pressure can come to bear on those launching limited wars, Israel eventually succumbing to it in both Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2009/10, dictatorships can hold out for far longer. Having also seen what happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, Assad knows overwhelming force is now his best weapon. We will almost certainly have to get used to this feeling of impotence, such is our managed decline.

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