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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

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.