There is no "tipping point" in Syria. Or, in so far as there is one, it happened months ago when the regime unleashed its forces on the major centres of opposition and failed to crush them, as President Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, had done in Hama.
The idea that the Houla massacre might represent a decisive moment like Gaddafi's assault on Benghazi and Saddam Hussein's onslaught on the Kurds, when Western intervention becomes possible, remains wishful thinking rather than realistic expectation.
If only it were so. But it won't happen. Not because President Assad's actions aren't monstrous enough. They are. But the conditions for successful military action from the outside don't allow it. In the case of the Iraqi Kurds, the Libyan rebels and even the Bosnian Muslims, the West could throw in air dominance and change the balance.
Syria isn't like that. The struggle is more widespread but more diffuse, a pattern of individual uprisings fuelled by local resentments, manned by army desertions and armed so far largely with the limited guns and ammunition the deserters have managed to obtain.
In one sense, that has worked to the rebels' advantage. The government's security forces have the weaponry to overawe, but not the means to winkle out elusive opponents fighting in civilian urban environments. Hence Damascus's resort to trying simply to smash the centres of opposition with artillery and gunship attack. Hence also their use of Alouite militia groups to go into the streets to do the hand-to-hand fighting, with a brutality that we've seen in Houla.
The cost to civilians is huge. But, so long as the fights are dispersed across the country, Damascus finds it difficult to deliver the hammer blow on a single town that it did with Hama in 1982 or the Germans did with the Warsaw uprising in 1944, when the Russians stood by (as now) and let it happen.
Yet it is wrong to demonise the Russians in this, as the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, did yesterday. It's all very well proposing fearsome UN Security Council resolutions and decrying Russia and China for not joining them. But supposing Russia did abstain rather than veto, what then?
The outside world can't end the Syrian conflict through air power alone. Yet sending in troops could not only make things far worse on the ground, but entangle foreign troops in a sectarian struggle within the country with all the consequences that we saw in Iraq.
Russia in this is as caught in impossible alternatives as the West is. It has no vested interest in seeing Assad survive, not under these circumstances, at any rate. But it finds it hard to see how the conflict can be ended in a manageable way.
In that sense, Moscow is right in arguing that arming the opposition will only drag things out with ever greater civilian casualties. But then what is the alternative? To tell the opposition to give up and leave the field to President Assad and his discredited family? It's gone too far for that.`
If there is to be an early resolution of the conflict, it can only be through one side wining decisively. If that victor is not to be Assad, then it has to be an opposition armed and organised enough to take on the security forces. Syrians have far more to fear from continued localised struggle than from an all-out war supplied from outside.
Short of that, the only hope is that public horror at Assad's crackdown and a growing sense that, under his regime, the country has nowhere to go will finally cause a mass uprising which will unseat him. It's a long shot. But if Houla can help it happen, then maybe it will have achieved something of a tipping point.
Just how much do the voters of Ireland and Spain really matter?
Only a dozen of the 17 members of the eurozone need to ratify the Fiscal Pact for it to become operative. Does that mean, therefore, that it doesn't really matter what the voters of Ireland decide in their referendum or the Greeks in their current election?
Strictly speaking, no – although clearly a rejection will cause more of an upset than a yes vote will reassure the markets. But, in another sense, politics are moving on and the markets are much less scared about this than by the overall inability of the eurozone members to get their act together and put enough money into the so-called "firewall" to protect Spain and Italy from default.
What is interesting about Spain, however, is that the fears concern far more the state of its banking system than its sovereign debt. Although the two are obviously connected, in political terms it may be more acceptable for the taxpayers of Germany and the North to rescue the banks than to rescue governments.
The European Commission's suggestion yesterday of a Europe-wide, and funded, deposit protection scheme may be a bit pie-in-the-sky, but the idea of funding direct recapitalisation of the banks could hold promise.
To listen to the commentators, you'd think a solution had to be found today. But, even looking at the markets, there's a sense that there is still time before the train goes off the precipice.Reuse content