Editorial: It is time to be realistic about Syria

The situation is grim - but there are practical measures the West could take

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If Syria’s devastating civil war has attracted less attention in recent months, it is not because the situation is either less sanguinary or more optimistic than it was. Rather, it is because so few people are able to get into the country and report back on what they find. In The Independent today, Robert Fisk writes from Damascus of  a city under siege, clinging to a semblance of normality while the shells continue to fall.

For all the stoicism, the situation is grim. More than two years on from the first demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad, some 70,000 people are dead and many millions are  displaced. Yet Assad remains relentless and  the violence only escalates. According to Human Rights Watch, the regime’s air force is  deliberately targeting civilians. There is also evidence of the use of cluster bombs, and both sides accuse the other of chemical attacks.

The natural response to such horrors is a desire to put a stop to them. As William Hague put it at the G8 foreign ministers’ meeting, Syria “is turning into the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century so far”. “We cannot watch this happen,” he concluded.

The sentiment is a fine one. Had Russia et al not blocked progress at the UN in the early months, there might have been constructive moves to be made. If there was ever a time for intervention, however, that moment has passed. The situation on the ground is now too murky; the dangers of regional, sectarian conflagration are too marked; and the fissiparous rebels are too alarming in their alliances. This week’s declaration of allegiance to al-Qa’ida from the al-Nusra Front, even as the US Secretary of State hinted at wider support for the rival Syrian National Coalition, emphasises the problem.

There is something we can do. Sanctions, arms embargoes, and a role for the International Criminal Court would be a start. Humanitarian help, particularly to Syria’s refugee-flooded neighbours, should also be increased. As  regards military assistance, though – whether direct or indirect – it is too late.

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