Paul Vallely: Why the West pussyfoots around Assad

Talk of the 'complexity and nuances' of the Syrian case has led to political paralysis, and will do nothing to help the city of Homs

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Some people are just unlucky. They get born in the wrong place. Like the Syrian city of Homs, where at least 1,770 people have been killed since government troops began their relentless bombardment of the city three weeks ago. Over the past year, the killing machine of President Bashar al-Assad, in a brutal attempt to root out the uprising against him, has taken thousands of lives with "merciless disregard", to quote the words of the veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin, speaking just before the Assad regime killed her as well.

Those who were born in the Libyan city of Benghazi proved more fortunate. Their dictator was Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. When he declared his determination to wipe his political opponents from the face of the earth, the West decided to intervene. Nato took out Gaddafi's air force and tanks to prevent Benghazi being flattened and its people obliterated. Assad in Syria, by contrast, appears to be getting away with his murders. So let's ask the idiot question: why was it OK to intervene in Libya then, but not in Syria now?

The idea that Syria is like Libya, said Hillary Clinton the other day, is a "false analogy". What then has Libya got that Syria hasn't? Oil is the obvious answer. But there is more to it than that. Gaddafi was a crazy maverick who had, over the years, alienated just about all of his Arab and European neighbours to the extent that there was no one to weep at his going. He did not have much of an actual track record of mass murder, unlike the Assad dynasty in Syria, but he was an easy target.

Assad is a bigger boy in the international schoolyard. Syria has a standing army of a quarter of a million troops, nerve gas and chemical weapons. And it has even bigger friends in the playground. The foreign ministers of its two biggest allies, Russia and China, went on the phone to one another the other day to "reaffirm" their "joint position". Both have just sent envoys to Damascus. Both vetoed a UN security resolution condemning Assad's human rights violations, presumably because they wouldn't want anyone scrutinising their own record in Chechnya or Tibet.

Russia is the more resolute. Having lost most of its Middle Eastern allies, it is determined to hang on to Syria, where it has its only naval base on the Mediterranean. Last year, 10 per cent of Moscow's $3.8bn arms sales were to Syria. Russian investment in Syrian infrastructure, energy and tourism is around $20bn a year.

And then there is Iran. Last week, it provocatively sent a couple of warships through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean to dock in the Syrian port of Tartus where 600 Russian technicians are busy renovating the former Soviet base. Assad is often described as isolated because the Arab League has lined up firmly against him. But that is to forget Iran. In a region split between Sunni and Shia, the latter dominate in Iran and now Iraq. They see Assad – whose family is from the minority Alawite Shia sect that rules over Syria's Sunni majority – as a key ally. He is their conduit to Hezbollah, the Shia militant movement that terrorises Israel.

This explains the political paralysis of the West on Syria. Most of the West's traditional Arab allies are Sunni – from Saudi Arabia, through the Gulf, to Jordan and Egypt. Most of the Syrian rebels are Sunni. But so, too, is al-Qa'ida. Western spooks fear that the inchoate anti-Assad coalition could hide a potent cohort of jihadists – an anxiety that has just been fed by al-Qa'ida's new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who pledged support for the fight against the "pernicious, cancerous regime" of Assad. That has not helped the people of Homs one bit.

Inside diplomatic circles there is, therefore, endless talk about the complexity and nuances of the Syrian case. Faced with the ruthless resolution of Assad and his allies, we make excuses. The Syrian opposition is far weaker, and more fractured, than were the Libyan rebels. The best-known opposition group, the Syrian National Council, is a muddle of intellectuals, liberals, activists, Islamists and sectarian minorities who share little beyond hatred of Assad. They are split over whether to negotiate with Assad, whether to ask for outside military intervention and much else.

Arming them is premature, Washington says, mindful of how it gave ground-to-air missiles to insurgents to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan – and then saw good mujahideen turned into bad Taliban before their very eyes. The British are no less confused: one of the key liberators of Libya turned out to be someone we had handed over to Gaddafi as a terrorist.

There is another problem. The Syrian insurrection is breaking out everywhere, on the outskirts of a dozen big cities and in territory near the borders with Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, which Assad can retake but not keep. That is good. But it means there are no clear battle lines and no large contiguous rebel-held area that can be protected by a Libyan-style "no-fly zone".

The killing in Syria is being done in densely populated urban areas by some particularly nasty special forces with long counterinsurgency experience. French jets and US drones will be far less effective against them than against Gaddafi. Air strikes would run the risk of significant civilian casualties. And Nato planes would be targeted by advanced Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles and aircraft probably piloted by Russian "advisers". It could all take on the dimensions of a proxy war, not just between Shia and Sunni but also for an unpopular Putin government eager to win support back home with a few easy hits against the US.

This all looks big scary stuff to Western leaders. Moral outrage, they fear, is not a sufficient basis for serious foreign policy. It is far easier to let the people in Homs die to the accompaniment of loud wailing and impotent hand-wringing from Europe and America. We have done it before in Rwanda, Srebrenica and in the Syrian city of Hama, when President Assad's father wiped out 20,000 people for exactly the same reasons 30 years ago last week.

"No one here can understand how the international community can let this happen," Marie Colvin fulminated the day before she died. Indeed. We could arm the rebels, as the French and Qataris did in Libya, or we could stand by and wring our hands until a Syrian Sunni embrace of al-Qa'ida becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Either way, it now looks as if, for the people of Homs, whatever happens will come too late.

The world is full of people who lacked the good sense to choose parents in Surrey rather than Syria. Just a few are privileged to choose where they live or, in the case of courageous colleagues such as Marie Colvin, where they die. But the helpless citizens of Homs have no choice at all. Unlucky, that.

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