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The brutality of Assad is not enough to bring action

Date

Sydney Morning Herald political and international editor

View more articles from Peter Hartcher

<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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60 comments

  • Genocidal or murderous, indentured by ingratiation, the gutless draft dodging Three Amigos accomplished a similar mission over Baghdad from 40000 feet in a B52.

    Commenter
    Geronimo
    Location
    Yippee Yi Yo
    Date and time
    May 29, 2012, 7:09AM
    • What has this to do with accusations of Assad and agents of his regime as murderers?

      Commenter
      Johnno
      Date and time
      May 29, 2012, 11:21AM
    • Where is the proof that Assad is actually behind these brutal killings.

      What purpose does it help other than provide a cover for western forces to send their military support to the rebels,

      Something is fishy, it is clear the situation is not as black and white as Mr Hartcher thinks it is.

      Commenter
      Regh
      Date and time
      May 29, 2012, 12:42PM
    • To quote Robert Heinlen "Only a Brut kills for pleasure and only a fool kills for hate" and certainly those pilots are neither fools or brutes.

      The consanguineous tribal rivalries of the middle east create a tendency for some brutal acts against other groups we can barely comprehend. It's for this reason we should avoid getting involved; it will be a mess that would cost precious Australian lives and WILL damage us economically.

      I suggest folks check out the Ron Paul anti war video "If China invades texas" on youtube to get an idea of what will happen in Syria if we did.

      Commenter
      William
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 29, 2012, 2:40PM
    • You can be certain of one thing Johnno, an explanation would do absolutely nothing for your comprehension.

      Commenter
      Geronimo
      Location
      Yippee Yi Yo
      Date and time
      May 29, 2012, 3:56PM
    • MattFromOz,

      Indeed it is unacceptable, but we might just need to be sure of who did it before we even contemplate who to punish!!!

      Commenter
      Lesm
      Location
      Balmain
      Date and time
      May 29, 2012, 4:09PM
  • Everyone agrees that the situation is terrible. The situation is terrible in Afghanistan as well but we are preparing to withdraw. Draw your own conclusion.

    Commenter
    Good Logic
    Date and time
    May 29, 2012, 7:22AM
    • It is interesting, but hardly surprising, that the press apparatchiks reflect the propaganda line favoured by the powerful. But there is just a little inconsistency in the story. The story coming out is that the city is occupied by the insurgents and being attacked from outside by the government troops using artillery. Yet we are also told that the vast majority of those slaughtered in this massacre were killed at close quarters by hand held weapons.

      Anyone sense a few porkies here?????

      Commenter
      Lesm
      Location
      Balmain
      Date and time
      May 29, 2012, 7:50AM
      • But Lesm, a good conspiracy would avoid such anomalies, would it not? It would also have a hard time inventing a large massacre involving a lot of people with a lot of witnesses. Far too messy and easily refuted. Worst of all, it assumes that dictators don't commit atrocities, perhaps the most outlandish of all. Don't you miss the good old days when it was easy to paint this picture as another impending Dubya military adventure? And then there's the Russians.....

        Commenter
        Twodogs
        Location
        Reality
        Date and time
        May 29, 2012, 10:55AM
      • Les you are on the mark. from The Brookings Institute Memo May 9, 2012 - By the US policy think-tank Brookings Institution's own admission, the Kofi Annan six-point peace plan in Syria was merely a ploy to buy time to reorganize NATO's ineffective terrorist proxies and provide them the pretext necessary for establishing NATO protected safe havens from which to carry out their terrorism from. In fact, Brookings actually stated in a recent report, "Assessing Options for Regime Change" (emphasis added):
        "An alternative is for diplomatic efforts to focus first on how to end the violence and how to gain humanitarian access, as is being done under Annan’s leadership. This may lead to the creation of safe-havens and humanitarian corridors, which would have to be backed by limited military power. This would, of course, fall short of U.S. goals for Syria and could preserve Asad in power. From that starting point, however, it is possible that a broad coalition with the appropriate international mandate could add further coercive action to its efforts." -page 4, Assessing Options for Regime Change, Brookings Institution.
        Go figure yes?!?!?!

        Commenter
        blizzard
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        May 29, 2012, 11:16AM

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