The danger of us intervening in Syria’s bloodshed

Published in the London Evening Standard (February 13th, 2012)

The scenes are unbearable. Children with their faces blown away, young men with legs severed, women bleeding slowly to death. Shattered homes and shattered bones. Doctors tell of people dying from lack of blood, or because vital equipment lies blown to pieces. In the distance, the thud of heavy weaponry, bringing more death and destruction.

Hell has descended on Homs. And it is a hell inflicted on people who dared to demand democracy and free speech. Remember this as the situation in Syria spirals out of control – it was sparked by brave men and women standing up to a despotic regime and asking for things we take so readily for granted.

When I went to meet these activists soon after the revolt began, I was struck by the words of one young woman explaining why she was prepared to risk everything for freedom. “I’ve felt scared all my life,” she said. “My father told me from a very early age to remember that walls have ears. Isn’t it terrible children must be told such things?”

She was determined her own children would live in a less fearful world. Unfortunately, as with each passing second Syria slides closer towards civil war, there is every chance of a world far worse than the one she envisaged with such hope.

As we chatted over coffee, President Bashar Assad was still being hailed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a reformer. Few would be stupid enough to call him that now. The carnage in Homs reveals how his repression has intensified in the nine days since Russia and China used their UN Security Council veto to block a feeble but highly symbolic attempt to defuse the crisis. One diplomat told me it was “no coincidence” the assault on Homs began 12 hours before the vote.

Inside Syria, the state-owned press speaks of abandoning “restraint” – an ominous phrase, given that an estimated 7,000 people have been killed since the uprising began last March, with many more beaten, jailed and tortured. Less ominous for Russia, mind you, since it will boost exports of weapons to a nation that accounts for one- tenth of its arms sales.

One new video reveals the depths to which the regime will stoop. A Russian-made tank lumbers down the streets of Douma, a suburb of Damascus.

As the turret turns, pictures of Assad can be seen pasted on either side of four powerful guns. Then the barrels let rip – and heavy shells designed to fire high into the skies and bring down fast-moving aircraft pound into people’s homes.

Little wonder Simon Collis, the British ambassador recalled last week from Damascus, has written an undiplomatic blog expressing disgust at the brutality he witnessed in recent months. “I have seen myself what this regime can do – and is doing relentlessly, and on a daily basis,” he says. “It is too shocking to ignore.”

But as Mr Collis also wrote, violence begets violence. This can be seen with every news report – the savagery of Assad’s crackdown, the car bombings in the second city of Aleppo, the assassination of a general, the call from al Qaeda to join the uprising.

In Damascus, until a month or so ago, people tried to keep up their spirits “Beirut-style” by continuing to socialise despite rising prices and lengthening food queues. Few bother now. There is just weary expectation of civil war. Over the past week, even the most moderate dissidents have started fund-raising for arms since they know the international community will not ride to their rescue after the failed UN vote.

The blame for the bloodshed in Syria rests on the bloodstained shoulders of Assad, the nerdy London doctor turned dictator, and his supporting cast of corrupt cronies. Foreign Secretary William Hague is right to put maximum effort into collecting evidence of human rights abuses so these gangsters can face trial one day. But right now the ramifications go far wider, for we are entering very dangerous terrain.

It is not just that Syria stands on the brink of full-blown civil war, with all the unique horrors such a conflict unleashes. Already there is increasing militarisation of the struggle, with weapons flooding in and rumours of Western special forces advising rebel forces.

Nor is it just that sectarian tensions inflamed by Assad as he clings to power could flare out of control in a country that has been a model of secular tolerance – and, it should be added, given some myopic recent commentary, where most of his opponents have sought desperately to avoid exacerbating religious divisions.

All this is bad enough. But what makes the situation so much worse is that Syria sits on the faultline of one of the world’s most volatile regions, with neighbours that include Israel, Iraq and Lebanon. Diplomats fear civil war could turn rapidly into a proxy war – and we have seen in places such as the Congo how destructive these can be.

On Assad’s side would be Iran – already advising and funding his regime – and Russia, holding onto the vestiges of its superpower status. On the other would be the increasingly-assertive Qatar and Turkey, plus Saudi Arabia, perhaps the world’s most pernicious regime.

It is a highly combustible mix: a descent into chaos combining modern politics with ancient divisions. This is why talk of our arming the rebels or military intervention are wide of the mark. Just as it was wrong to let the debacle of Iraq mitigate against action in Libya, so it is foolish to think success there leads naturally on to Syria. Any intervention – even the establishment of safe havens – would need to see ground forces committed and there is no appetite for this in London or Washington.

The only real hope for Syria is that another round of dogged diplomacy – with or without the Russians – can halt the worsening bloodshed or winkle out the monstrous Assad. Or that the rotting regime collapses, whether under the weight of growing economic pressures, fresh sanctions or with its leader deserted by his allies.

Forgive this counsel of despair. I wish there was more cause for optimism in Syria. But it is hard to see an immediate future for this beautiful country that doesn’t look impossibly bleak.

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