Adrian Hamilton: We can't control Syria – and we shouldn't try

International Studies


They watered it down three times but still the Russians and Chinese vetoed the UN Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad for suppressing his own people. Cue for outrage from all the western governments. Alain Juppé, the French Foreign Minister, declared it "a sad day for the Syrian people" and a "sad day for the Security Council".

Susan Rice, the US representative to the UN, who walked out of the vote, went even further, calling it a "cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people". The Syrian protesters, she declared, would now know who the true obstacles to their hopes were.

Well, steady on. China and Russia may be in part driven by a desire for pragmatic gain. Given Russia's behaviour in the Caucasus and Chinese treatment of the Uighars, no one could call either of them friends of Islam. But their view on this vote was influenced more than anything by their response to events in Libya. They went along, by abstention, with a UN resolution supporting direct military intervention because Colonel Gaddafi had become so unpopular and his actions so brutally oppressive that it was unwise to look as if you supported him. They now feel – not without reason – that the UN resolution in the case of Libya was used to justify military intervention for the purposes of regime change and they now don't want that to happen in Syria.

The western response to the unfolding tragedy of Syria has been the opposite. To the Europeans and the US the success of operations in Libya in toppling Gaddafi has only made them, and France and the UK in particular, all the more eager to ride the Arab revolution as it spreads.

The high rhetoric of the moment partly reflects the knowledge that, at present, the West can't intervene militarily in Syria. Any such action would have too many consequences in the region and would not – unlike Libya – have the support of the Arab League.

But the rhetoric also reflects a hunger by western leaders after Libya to ride this wave and to be seen to be cresting it. David Cameron and President Sarkozy feel themselves the victors in Tripoli and would care to seem the same in Damascus. If push came to shove and world opinion really turned against President Assad as it turned against Gaddafi, then they would be up for military action as Moscow and Beijing fear. But without the international consensus they are determined to be seen to be "doing something" to support the democratic cause.

The problem is that there's not very much they can do to influence events directly. Sanctions sound good but, in practice, as we know from Iraq, Zimbabwe and Burma, tend to reinforce the ruling regime rather than undermine it. You can make life more uncomfortable, and certainly more restrictive, by imposing sanctions on individuals but when it comes to trade and oil, the more you confine trade, the more it benefits the elite at the expense of the general public.

You can try, as the West did with the National Transitional Council in Libya, to help mould an alternative democratic opposition. Britain and France, as well as the US, are desperately trying to do this in Syria by helping with the creation of the Syrian National Council. But, again as we know from Iraq, such efforts are easier in theory than in practice.

Talking to the BBC this week, the US ambassador to Syria, William Burns, urged the protesters not to resort to arms but to keep their demonstrations peaceful. But this is just wishful thinking. Of course it would be nicer, not least for the West, if there could be a peaceful change of government in Syria. But regime-change is a game of power and the Alawite minority rulers have at the moment the weapons and the forces to keep the lid on revolution so long as it is peaceful and so long as Damascus and Aleppo remain under tight control. That may not last, as tightening economic circumstances turn the middle classes against the regime. But change now may only be possible by force of arms and army desertions.

The Assad regime is finished. Of that there can be little doubt. The best hope for peaceful change is an Alawite decision to let the family go as the price for keeping clan power. But even that now looks doubtful as the bitterness over the deaths across the country hardens into a desire for revenge.

There is nothing very much that the outside world can do but look on from the sidelines, hoping that the oppressed can overturn their oppressors with as little bloodshed as possible. But we can't stop it. The honest thing would be to moderate the posturing and admit it.

Tories can't have it both ways on Europe<</b>/p>

The Tories are getting themselves into a muddle over Europe. On the one hand the Chancellor, George Osborne, and the Prime Minister want the eurozone to become a more cohesive and federal whole. On the other hand, they also don't want a tighter eurozone centre to start excluding and dominating those, like ourselves, on the fringes.

Well, you can't have it both ways, although politicians will always try. And the interesting thing at the moment is that you needn't try. Greece has undermined the support for an ever-closer EU run from Brussels. But it has also, as the Chancellor and PM admit, made its value to the British economy ever clearer. The future of Europe is an open question, if only we'd get in there to suggest answers.

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