<i>Illustration: John Shakespeare</i>

Illustration: John Shakespeare

Who could put a loaded gun to the head of a baby and pull the trigger? The coverage of the barbaric violence against women and children in the Syrian town of Houla at the weekend sent a wave of revulsion around the world.

But we know the answer. The obvious villain is Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. While his wife shops for $40,000 chandeliers from Paris, Bashar has been sending his forces to butcher and torture adults and children alike for a year and a quarter now.

The massacre in Houla left 108 people dead, among them 49 children and 34 women. Hillary Clinton calls the Bashar regime "government by murder". Those 108 dead are only the latest in a campaign that has killed an estimated minimum of 10,000. The dead pile upon the dead, atrocity upon atrocity, and the calls for something to be done grow louder.

But nothing so far has worked to restrain the dictator. And nothing short of brute force will. The weekend massacre occurred six weeks into a supposed ceasefire brokered by a special envoy, the former UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan. But the fire never ceased. Bashar will talk endlessly, meet, negotiate and promise. But he will not stop killing.

Because Bashar is fighting for his life. He's a part of the Alawite sect, a tiny offshoot of Shiite Islam that makes up just 7 per cent of Syria's population. Bashar and the Alawites fear they will be wiped out by the Sunnis who make up three-quarters of the country if they cede power.

The small size of the Alawite population is its key vulnerability; it is also the source of the regime's ferocity and cohesiveness. Most key military and security posts are filled by Alawites. Bashar's wife is shopping for chandeliers for the palace instead of real estate abroad because the family is not going anywhere. Leaked emails also show that she was helpfully researching bulletproof clothing for her husband.

The US and its allies have been working in the UN Security Council to win support for an escalating series of resolutions against Bashar, imposing sanctions, issuing denunciations and demanding that he call off his killers.

But one of the permanent five members of the UNSC, Russia, has brought down its veto on any serious effort to punish Syria. Syria is a long-standing ally of Russia's. It hosts a Russian naval base, buys Russian arms, and acts as a proxy for Russian interests in the Middle East.

The Russians go through the motions of caring. Russia's foreign minster, Sergei Lavrov, flew to Damascus last year and Bashar solemnly promised him that he would end the violence. But his tanks resumed their attacks on civilians even as Lavrov was in the air on the way back to Moscow. The Syrian president knew Russia didn't care, and everything since shows he was right.

Russia's increasingly repressive government under a recrudescent Putin treats some of its own civilians brutally. Why should it care about a few Syrians?

Much of the international media is spotlighting Russia as the obstacle. But the sad truth is that even if Russia were to magically lift its veto, nothing much would change because none of the leading powers, the countries that led the way into Libya to stop Gaddafi, the US, France, Britain, NATO, want to get involved. There are three main reasons why.

First is will. The US has no appetite for entering another war. Barack Obama is going to an election in November as the president who ends wars, not starts them. It's nine months since he first called on Bashar to go and he's showing no sign of any armed intervention. Without US leadership, NATO will not act.

Second is the degree of difficulty involved. While Libya was friendless, Syria has powerful allies like Iran and Russia and Hezbollah. While Gaddafi had only a ragtag army, Syria's is serious and formidable. While Libya allowed NATO a clear and easy target by using its air force against civilians, Bashar is too shrewd. He uses ground forces; any intervention would need to fight on the ground too, raising the risks exponentially.

And the wily Bashar is determined not to allow any easy foothold for a foreign force. "The regime's strategy is to prevent - at all costs - its armed opponents from seizing and holding territory inside the country, as this might give foreign powers a base from which to operate" writes Patrick Seale, author of Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East.

"As soon as it identifies pockets of armed opponents, it sends in its troops to crush them."

Third is the danger that by slaying the Bashar dragon, a foreign intervention would allow the rise of dangerous new dragons. As the Lowy Institute's Anthony Bubalo puts it: "When people take a close look at the opposition, that tempers their appetite for intervention. The opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood, but of the most unreconstructed kind, and some al-Qaeda guys as well."

Without Western efforts to halt Bashar by force, some of the Sunni Gulf states are stepping in to arm their Sunni brothers against Bashar's Shiite Alawites with pledges of $100 million. "Saudi Arabia and Qatar are now supporting the rebels with more than empty words," writes Alan George, an expert at Oxford. "The new equipment reaching the Free Syrian Army is likely to include weaponry effective against armoured vehicles. If the regime is no longer able to use its armour at will, it may have to rely increasingly on long-range artillery and air attack - with horrendous implications for casualties."

If so, the struggle will change, but not for the better. Today's repression by the government against a far weaker group of rebels will increasingly resemble a civil war. On any analysis, the scale of the killing in Syria will continue and, if anything, grow worse.

Peter Hartcher is the international editor.

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