Syria: no road back

Were the schoolchildren in Deraa tortured for scrawling graffiti really agents of a foreign regime?

The appalling scenes as the Syrian army on Friday”cleansed” Baba Amr, the suburb of Homs which has become the symbol of the year-old uprising, plays to what Bashar al-Assad regards as his strengths. By painting ordinary Syrians as saboteurs, Islamists and agents of a foreign conspiracy, Assad has successfully militarised a conflict that sprang a year ago from a local demonstration. Were the schoolchildren in Deraa tortured for scrawling graffiti really agents of a foreign regime?

The conflict may be militarised, but it is no longer one that Assad can win militarily. It is too widespread for that. Too much innocent blood has flowed. Too many Syrians have friends or relatives gunned down by government snipers. The suffering and sacrifice has been so extreme that Assad has run out of further sanctions. If he is heading anywhere, it is for a brutal and bloody stalemate.

Syria, however, is no Libya. Assad’s regime has stayed intact. Its diplomatic corps has not defected, nor have the senior ranks of the army. Soldiers defect but, in general, whole units do not. There are no reports of defections from the security services. But as this core support had hardened, their control over the country has loosened. Homs in 2012 will not be a repeat of the Hama massacre in 1982, when Hafez, Bashar’s father, conducted a scorched-earth policy against an Islamist revolt. Assad can not crush and isolate a revolt in Homs. He can at best temporarily displace it.

The prospect of the long, hard slog ahead has caused Assad’s main foreign backers, Russia and China, to have second thoughts. Vladimir Putin accused the west of fuelling the conflict and, as he faces re-election tomorrow, that fits a nationalist agenda. But he has backed, with China, a new security council resolution expressing disappointment at Syria’s failure to admit the UN humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos, and Russia has started to distance itself from the Syrian regime. This is not out of fear for Russia’s military investment in Syria, which is lost already. It is more likely to stem from a cold calculation of the future awaiting Syria. Putin’s purpose was to thwart a repeat of Nato’s bombing of Libya. But as a civil war gathers pace, Russia’s aim of negotiating an end to the conflict with Assad in place will be harder to maintain. Inexorably, Putin’s strategic interests and Assad’s personal ones will diverge. A general ceasefire will suit Russia, but not Assad, for whom there is no way back.

The Gulf states, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Russia and the US all have a stake in Syria. It will be just as difficult for Syrians to stay in control of their own uprising as it will be to see the slow, grinding end of the Assad dynasty. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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