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Leader: The brutality of Assad’s regime poses a challenge to the west

Even by the depraved standards of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the massacre of civilians in Syria’s Houla region was shocking. After the initial bombardment by the Syrian armed forces, state-sponsored militias went from house to house and summarily executed whole families. Of the 108 victims, 49 were children and infants, their lives ended with a shot to the head or a knife to the throat. After 15 months of conflict and the loss of as many as 12,600 lives, the violence has entered a more sinister phase.

In just six weeks, the peace plan formulated by the UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, calling for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of troops and heavy weapons from cities and dialogue between the government and the opposition, has failed comprehensively. Russia, which has the greatest power to exert diplomatic pressure on Damascus, remains stubbornly loyal to the Assad regime. It put its name to a UN Security Council statement that condemned “government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighbourhood” but went on to echo Assad’s claim that rebel groups shared respon­sibility for the killings in Houla. Russia remains the largest supplier of arms to Syria and it has refused to sign up to the sanctions imposed by the US and the EU.

Barack Obama remains hopeful that he can persuade the Russians to support a negotiated settlement, modelled on that in Yemen, under which Assad would depart but parts of his administration would remain in place. Yet even if Vladimir Putin acquiesces to the proposal, it is hard to see Assad doing so. With every surge in the violence, his desire to cling to power only seems to increase. Like Macbeth, he is “in blood stepp’d in so far” that retreat is unthinkable.

The failures of diplomacy and the legacy of western inaction in Rwanda, in 1994, and Bosnia, in 1995, have led some to conclude that there is no alternative to military action. Yet even a limited intervention would risk triggering a full-blown sectarian civil war and proxy interventions by Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The west must not avoid the uncomfortable truth that a significant portion of the Syrian population remains profoundly loyal to Assad. Moreover, as Tony Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell argued in the New Statesman in February:

“Our action [in Syria] would be viable only if the rebels wanted us to intervene.”

For now, they remain divided. The Syrian National Council has called for the imposition of a no-fly zone but the National Co-ordination Committee, the other main faction, favours a negotiated settlement. In view of the continuing bloodshed in Libya, that is no surprise.

Even in Egypt, progress towards democracy remains uncertain. In this month’s presidential run-off, voters face an unenviable choice between Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafiq, a relic of the ancien régime. Neither liberalism nor secularism, the defining qualities of the Arab spring, will be represented on the ballot paper. Yet it was always naive to expect Egypt to move swiftly to liberal democracy after 30 years of autocracy. The post-Islamist generation was strong enough to topple Mubarak but too weak to take power. Yet its increasing prominence has changed the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps irrevocably. As Olivier Roy, one of the world’s leading scholars on the Middle East, previously noted in the NS, while the Brotherhood will seek to exert control over public morality, it will have to “reckon with a demand for liberty that doesn’t stop with the right to elect a parliament”.

Fears that Egypt is becoming the “new Iran” are absurd. The principle of free elections allows the revolutionaries reasons for hope, so desperately absent in Syria.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The royal makeover