Shashank Joshi: While revolutionaries prepare for battle, diplomats continue to play games

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The Independent Online

Earlier this month, India's representative to the UN stood up at a conference and declared that if Syria changed Article 8 of its constitution – which enshrines the supremacy of the Baath Party – then that would be reform enough.

The families of the thousands who have been murdered and tortured are unlikely to agree that the uprising has anything to do with the country's charade of a constitution, but Hardeep Singh Puri's comments illustrate the obstacles that lie ahead for those, like the US and Britain, who hope to depose the Assad dynasty.

The imposition of a seventh round of European sanctions should have been a major blow. After all, most of Syria's 100,000 barrels of daily oil exports went to Europe, and provided a third of the government budget. The last cargo left on Friday. But Syria has reacted by suspending about a quarter of all imports, saving up to $6bn (£3.8bn) annually. That means their financial reserves will stretch further. The economic dislocation caused by sanctions could induce the (majority Sunni) trading classes of Aleppo and Damascus to peel away from the (minority Alawi) regime, but the resulting hardship could also generate a nationalist backlash.

More importantly, there is no way to stop India, China or Russia from stepping in as buyers of Syrian oil – and all of these serve on the UN Security Council. Russia enjoys access to a Mediterranean naval base in the Syrian city of Tartus, and arms sales from Moscow to Damascus have rocketed over the past five years. China and India, angered at Nato's war in Libya, have no interest in deepening the precedent for regime change.

This goes double for the states of the region. Whereas Libya was a strategic backwater, Syria sits at the heart of the Middle East. Turkey has taken desultory steps to put pressure on Assad. To either side of Syria are fragile democracies, Lebanon and Iraq, both cautionary tales of what can happen when ethnically complex secular states fall apart.

Even in the absence of these hurdles, Syria's uprising would still be hobbled by a fractious opposition, less organised than that of Libya's revolution and with no prospect of Western military assistance.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister, has condemned Syria's protesters as troublemakers seeking to "stir up confrontation". But Lavrov and his diplomatic allies in Beijing and Delhi are oblivious to signs that a civil war is brewing. The price of guns is spiralling as the revolutionaries arm themselves. If the regime continues to enjoy this sort of diplomatic insulation, its death will be slow, bloody and explosive.

The writer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute