Fears of 'another Iraq' if troops enter Syria

US raises alert over possible chemical weapons arsenal as world leaders meet

World leaders struggling to force Syria's President from power will gather in Tunisia today armed with fresh evidence that his regime ordered crimes against humanity, including the killing of children, but calls for military intervention remain firmly off the agenda.

Despite a growing body of evidence that President Bashar al-Assad is personally culpable for the atrocities inflicted upon his own people – the rationale for military intervention in Libya – William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, said yesterday that a repeat of the Nato action that helped topple Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was unlikely.

His comments come amid rising concern that the splintered, disunited opposition may be infiltrated by extremist Sunni and al-Qa'ida fighters. American officials are also concerned that President Assad is sitting on a cache of chemical weapons that could wind up in extremists' hands if his regime fell.

"We are operating under many more constraints than we were in the case of Libya," Mr Hague told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "Syria sits next to Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq – what happens in Syria has an effect on all of those countries and the consequences of any outside intervention are much more difficult to foresee."

Instead, he said, world leaders including the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and leaders from the Arab League meeting under the Friends of Syria banner in Tunis today would focus on "tightening a diplomatic and economic stranglehold" on the regime.

The apparent futility of this diplomatic approach, however, is frustrating the opposition. Despite repeated rounds of strong words and sanctions since the uprising in March last year, Assad shows no sign of stopping his fierce assault.

Up to 7,000 people are believed to have died. The Sunday Times reporter, Marie Colvin, was among 30 civilians reported dead on Wednesday during the apparently indiscriminate bombing of the opposition stronghold of Homs. A new UN report on Syrian atrocities made public yesterday said that 500 children had been killed in the violence. The panel of UN human rights experts has also compiled a list of Syrian officials who could face investigation for crimes against humanity, which will be passed to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The experts have indicated that the list goes all the way up to the President himself.

Any move to refer Syrian officials to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, however, would be likely to face opposition from Russia and China, who on 4 February vetoed a UN resolution calling on President Assad to step aside. Activists hope this is one area where the Friends of Syria group could have some influence, even though Russia is not sending a delegate.

"They need to think of how to exert more pressure, not just on Syria, but on its allies," said Nadim Houry, the Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Middle East. "I would hate to think the option is whether to bomb or not to bomb."

Voices calling for military intervention are more muted than they were when Gaddafi rained artillery down on his own people. So far, just a small fraction of the many armed and unarmed opposition groups has openly called for intervention, and many military analysts believe it would be disastrous.

"The great risk is that the situation in Syria resembles that in Iraq and the entire government force and government authority disintegrates," said Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow from the Royal United Services Institute. "You are already seeing international actors start to enter Syria from Iraq and other places, many of them are Sunni fundamentalist and have links to al-Qa'ida."

Yesterday CNN cited a US military report speculating that 75,000 ground troops could be needed to secure Syria's chemical weapons sites. These are thought to include facilities for producing nerve gas. But unlike Iraq, where the alleged presence of chemical weapons and al-Qa'ida was used as a rationale for going to war, in Syria these factors are being used to make the case for caution. "If the ulterior motive would be to justify some sort of intervention, it is operating in completely the other direction – it has been suggested that the presence of al-Qa'ida means that any intervention could see the situation worsen and we would be trapped in a civil war from which we couldn't escape," said Mr Joshi.

Opposition groups are desperate to deny reports that they are being infiltrated by extremists, blaming propaganda by the Assad regime. But the claims have made Western governments wary of funnelling money and weapons to the rebels.

What next? The options

Military intervention

For Assad so far appears immune to the diplomatic pressure aimed at forcing him to hand power to his deputy and stop his brutal crackdown on anyone opposed to his rule. Military strikes could take out the tanks that are causing dozens of deaths in the opposition stronghold of Homs.

Against Even Syrian opposition groups are largely against any Libya-style air strikes in Syria. The country still has powerful backers including Russia and Iran, and military action without international consensus could spark a broader conflict that would spill into the nation's already unstable neighbours such as Iraq and Lebanon.

Arming the rebels

For The armed opposition groups are mostly made up of defecting soldiers, but they are out-gunned by Assad's forces. Giving weapons to the rebels and providing training would help them take on Assad's army and get around the minefield of direct military intervention.

Against The rebel groups are divided and there are reports that Islamist extremists have infiltrated the opposition. The West remains scarred from its experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when some of the men they armed to fight the Soviet occupation eventually turned their weapons and training on the West.

Humanitarian corridor

For Temporary ceasefires and the creation of a humanitarian corridor from neighbouring countries would allow aid to get to the worst-hit areas such as Homs and facilitate the evacuation of the injured. This will be a key issue discussed at the Tunisia summit today.

Against The Syrian regime would need to adhere to any ceasefire otherwise humanitarian workers would be put at grave risk. It is also very difficult to enforce such safe passage without foreign military boots on the ground for protection – something Assad is unlikely to agree to unless under pressure from Russia.

More economic sanctions

For Many analysts say that as the regime is gradually squeezed by sanctions including an oil embargo, the business community and middle class will turn against Assad as they are hit in the pocket. One Western diplomat said yesterday that the regime's foreign currency reserves will run out in three to five months.

Against As with any sanctions, some argue that it is the people of Syria that are hurting the most, with crippling inflation and power cuts every day. Thousands more civilians could also be killed as diplomats wait for the sanctions to work even as the regime continues its slaughter.