Adrian Hamilton: Arms, not diplomacy, will decide the fate of Syria

World View

Adrian Hamilton
Friday 10 February 2012 01:00
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Don't be fooled by the outraged cries coming from London, Paris, Washington and now the UN Secretary General himself over the Russian and Chinese veto of the resolution on Syria. True, it spoiled the careful build-up of diplomatic pressure organised by Western and Arab governments. But it's also quite convenient to put all the blame for the continuing escalation of violence in Syria on these two countries, Russia in particular.

Of course, President Assad must welcome the fact that he escaped the censure of the UN. But does anyone think for a moment that, had the resolution passed, he would have instantly ceased bombarding Homs or any other centre of resistance?

The Syrian government isn't deploying the heavy weaponry so deplored by UN chief Ban Ki-moon and President Obama just as an exercise to cow the civilian population which can be turned on or off at will. It's using it to crush any centre of resistance or independence, the more so now that the resistance has become armed by army desertions.

If the Assad family and its Alouite supporters weren't willing to stop the onslaught even when observers from the Arab League were present, they certainly wouldn't just because of a UN vote. Given the growing armed strength of its opponents, the regime in Damascus must feel it has no alternative but to suppress with full force the revolt while it still lacks the weaponry or numbers to overthrow it. President Bashar al-Assad may make all the promises he likes to the visiting Russian Foreign Minister about stopping the violence and talking to his foes. He may even think he means it. But only once his regime has won on the ground.

Diplomacy in these circumstances, like sanctions, is essentially just a means of western politicians to sound as if they are "doing something" about a situation that anguishes their public, but about which they can do very little without direct military engagement.

Russia and China might well have been wrong to veto the resolution. It has cost them a good deal of credibility in the Middle East and elsewhere. Their diplomats, at any rate, must think it might have been better to have abstained. But that doesn't make the Russians wrong in the basic case they have been making. However the UN resolution was worded, the intention was regime change and, like it or not, it does smack of Western-inspired intervention.

The West would argue, just as it did over Libya, that the support of the Arab League and the refusal to put troops on the ground make this something quite different from Western interventions of the past.

Libyan intervention – which Russia and China went along with – does not provide a reassuring example, however. Arab League participation was entirely down to loathing of Gaddafi. Imposition of a no-fly zone quickly led to a one-sided bombing of the regime's forces and effective participation in a civil war. While it succeeded in unseating Colonel Gaddafi, it was at a high cost in casualties and a messy aftermath still to be resolved.

Regime change is the name of the Syrian game, now as it was then. It's far too late to talk of negotiated settlements. Too much blood has already been spilt. The question is whether it can be achieved quickly on the ground without full-blown civil war.

The best hope is that a horror at the civilian casualties will combine with a middle-class conclusion that the Assad rule is doomed to produce a mass insurgency which sweeps away the government. The more likely development is the arming of the rebellion by the religious groups in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, eased by Turkey and very probably helped clandestinely by the US and Britain.

In either case, diplomacy is now but a side-show.

America may have been down but it's beginning to get up

The most important news of the week may well prove to be not the escalating violence in Syria nor the continuing troubles in getting an economic package through in Greece, but the rise in the US employment figures.

Economists have been quick to dismiss the idea that the rise could represent a real revival. And they may be right. It's too early to talk of a return to growth just yet, or indeed for some years into the future. But six months of rising employment has to mean something.

So far, that something has been interpreted in domestic political terms. If the jobs figures go on rising, then so do the chances of President Obama being re-elected in the November vote (although that is not a given, as UK governments have learned). But the implications are far broader than that.

America means business. It's a cliché. But it's true. Much of the fall in America's influence abroad has been caused by the collapse in its economic growth and the failure of its financial model. Iraq and Afghanistan have shown up the limits of its military muscle. But far more important, particularly in Asia and Latin America, has been its decline as an economic powerhouse.

Restore growth, and with it self-confidence, and we will see a very different America, far more nationalistic in spirit and far more willing, I believe, to throw its weight around.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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