Intervention in Syria won’t work, so how do we stop Assad?

How do we stop the ongoing killings in Syria? It is an urgent and important question but one that defies a simple or easy answer.

Let's be clear: Syria is a human rights disaster. The revolution's death toll now exceeds 6,000 and thousands of others have been "disappeared" into the country's mini-gulags, to be tortured and starved. Syria's third-biggest city, Homs, is under daily bombardment from shells, mortars and machine-gun fire.

The images of the dead and maimed on our television screens are appalling. So what should be done to stop Bashar al-Assad's killing machine? Is it time to despatch the B-52s? Arm the opposition? Impose a no-fly zone? That's where the discussion in western capitals and on our newspaper comment pages seems to be increasingly heading.

If only such military options were of any use. I abhor the cynicism and despotism of the Ba'athist regime in Damascus; I want Assad out - as all democrats and internationalists should. But foreign intervention isn't the way. Syria isn't Libya. The latter is a nation of six and a half million people, while the former consists of more than 20 million. Unlike Libya, Syria's densely populated cities and towns are a mix of ethnic and religious communities; the country cannot be spliced into pro-rebel east and pro-dictator west. Dropping bombs from 5,000 feet would guarantee civilian casualties and rally some anti-Assad Syrians behind the regime.

Western military action against Syria could prove to be a moral and political catastrophe. Marc Lynch, director of George Washington University's Institute for Middle East Studies and one of America's sharpest analysts of Arab politics, has warned on his blog of how even the most limited military intervention in Syria could transform the country into "a regional vortex, 1980s Lebanon on steroids: a protracted and violent civil war, fuelled by arms shipments and covert, proxy interventions by all parties".

Across the great divide

Lynch, who supported Nato's air assault on Libya, points out how "controlling Syrian airspace alone" would do little to affect Assad's "ability to act". Military intervention, he says, "appeals to the soul but does not make sense".

Nor, unlike Libya, is there a clear demand for foreign military intervention from Syria's opposition, which, like the country, is fractured and split. There are three main opposition groups leading the resistance to Assad: the Syrian National Council (SNC), itself a conglomeration of diverse factions, ranging from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to the Kurdish Future Movement Party; the Free Syrian Army, consisting of defectors from the regime's armed forces; and the National Co-ordinating Committee (NCC), formed from an alliance of 13 mostly left-leaning, secular political parties, including three Kurdish groups.

Guess what? The various opposition groups and their constituent factions have different views on foreign intervention, with two Paris-based Syrians - Burhan Ghalioun and Haytham al-Manna - reflecting and representing the key divide. Ghalioun, a former professor of political sociology at the Sorbonne, is the chair of the SNC. He has called for the international community to impose a partial no-fly zone over Syria, as well as a "humanitarian corridor", and has assiduously courted the US government: in December, he pledged that a post-Assad Syria would break its alliance with Iran and drop its support for Hamas and Hezbollah.

Al-Manna, a veteran human rights activist whose brother was killed in August by Syrian security forces, is the spokesman for the NCC, which rejects foreign intervention and is willing to consider dialogue and negotiations with the Assad regime. Al-Manna has described those Syrians demanding intervention as "traitors" - though he isn't opposed to "peacekeepers", or "green helmets", from the Arab League.

“As for the NCC, I am the only member living outside Syria," said al-Manna in an interview last month, adding: "The SNC's members are all outside. They are, in a way, the council of exiles." The NCC's resistance to Assad revolves around three nos: no to sectarianism, no to foreign intervention and no to violence.

Up in the air

Now, you could argue that the NCC position is naive; that without violence, without foreign intervention, there is no chance of toppling the entrenched and murderous Assad regime. Perhaps. But the bigger point is this: Syrians , as the Egyptian blogger and revolutionary Wael Ghonim reminded me at a recent New Statesman event in London, should decide their own future. Yes, some are calling for foreign military intervention. But others don't want a rerun of Libya - or, dare I say it, Iraq. It is irresponsible, not to mention disingenuous, for western commentators - for example, Nick Cohen in the Observer last month - to gloss over this division of opinion among opponents of Assad and pretend that a unified Syrian opposition "now wants Nato planes in the skies".

Yet the killings must stop. Whether we like it or not, it is incumbent upon those of us who are instinctively opposed to western military interventions in the Middle East to answer the question: what would you do to stop Assad?

My honest response is that there is no simple solution. The diplomatic options include exerting further pressure on the Chinese and (especially) the Russians to back a Security Council resolution isolating and condemning the Syrian regime; threatening Assad and his cronies with International Criminal Court indictments; and widening the range of targeted, multilateral sanctions on the regime.

Will this halt the violence overnight? No - but neither would an attack from the air. Military action might appeal to the soul but it isn't a viable option. It won't stop the violence and it isn't what most Syrians want.

Tags:Syria