Leading article: A farcical vote that does nothing for Assad's people

 

Share
Related Topics

There is an air of nightmarish farce to the Syrian government's decision to hold a constitutional referendum at a time when it is subjecting one of the largest cities in the country to relentless, punitive bombardment. The agony of Homs, now in its fourth week, appears endless as President Bashar al-Assad's tanks pound residential districts indiscriminately. No one knows exactly how many died in Syria at the weekend but most estimates range between 60 and 90. Either way, hardly anyone in Homs was in any position yesterday to tick or cross Mr Assad's meaningless shopping list of reforms.

In any case, the President has already promised all or most of these reforms – fixed-term presidential mandates, multi-party elections and other gewgaws – raising the question of why a vote is being held. The answer to that, of course, is that the vote is another attempt to throw dust in the eyes of the international community and bolster the claim of the regime's allies in Tehran, Beijing and Moscow that Mr Assad needs time to execute his planned changes – time that will be used to flatten more of Homs, whose fate will then serve as a warning to other opposition strongholds in Syria of what they can expect if they continue their defiance.

We have been here before. In the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, the world hummed, hawed, "condemned" this and that and from time to time roused itself to issue feeble-sounding threats while Slobodan Milosevic's forces rampaged from one city to another. It was only when they settled on the obstinate little town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia in 1995 and murdered 8,000 people there that the world finally acted. Belgrade then, like Damascus now, was liberal with promises to declare ceasefires, avoid civilian casualties, let in the Red Cross and – always a favourite phrase with dictatorial regimes – institute reforms. Then, as now, Beijing and Moscow professed to be impressed by these promises. Meanwhile, they did their best to stop any outside force from restraining the carnage on the grounds that it would constitute unacceptable interference in a sovereign state's internal affairs and make matters worse.

The lesson from that Balkan debacle is that sitting on one's hands and waiting for a natural equilibrium of power to reassert itself is not a strategy but a substitute for one. It can take a long time before civil wars burn themselves out, and the other great problem is that by then various unwelcome outsiders will have become involved, eagerly fighting their own proxy wars. Saudi Arabia's manifest desire to insert itself in the Syrian conflict on the side of the Sunni majority is only one of several alarming developments. The last thing that Syrians need is "liberation" at the hands of Sunni theocrats from Jeddah.

What to do? As Beijing often follows, or is a faint echo of, Moscow in these matters, all hope of co-ordinating a truly international approach to the Syrian crisis seems to depend on trying once again to get Russia to change course. This will be tough. Russia's rulers are prickly, defensive and feel slighted, not always without cause, most recently over Libya. But other options are scarce. It would be good to know that the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is working the phone line to Moscow hard in this respect, not simply adopting a high moral tone about Homs in her speeches.

It is vital that the West, which effectively means America, persuades Russia of the folly of continuing to back the regime in Damascus and gets it to throw its weight behind a negotiated compromise that involves elements of the regime, minus the Assad family, and the opposition. In the meantime, we need not dignify the referendum with a response. The time when such devices might have achieved anything in Syria, unfortunately, has long passed.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash the two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in new political order

Michael Ashcroft
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before