Adrian Hamilton: If we can't intervene, at least we can isolate Syria

World View

Adrian Hamilton
Friday 24 February 2012 01:00

The death of three journalists in Homs is not going to get the West to intervene in Syria, however passionate the feelings it may arouse. Journalists make their reputation drawing the world's attention to the violence and the suffering wrought by tyrannical regimes. But journalists of any experience also know what outside intervention does in prolonging conflict and imposing misery on the lives of ordinary civilians.

What in the end do people, including the opposition meeting with EU, Arab and regional officials in Tunis today, want the West to do? Send in the bombers to create more havoc from the air? Put in troops and make this an invasion and occupation?

We've been there before and it hasn't worked. Libya is the exception that proved the rule. It stopped a slaughter in Benghazi and left a society struggling to hold together. In Syria, it would be even worse. You can't turn the tide of war from the air. It's too populated a country for that. The ethnic divisions are far greater than the tribal splits in Libya and the religious divide far deeper. In entering what is now a civil war, we become a party to its strife.

That is not to say do nothing. There is always a tendency in highly charged situations such as this to say it is either one extreme or another, putting boots on the ground or a muzzle on the mouth. Admittedly, simply mouthing off doesn't do much good, tempting though it is for politicians faced with the demand to "do something". William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, is talking hot air when he presents sanctions as the action which will force the Assad regime voluntarily to give up power.

They may prove uncomfortable for the Alawite regime but they won't make it change course. If anything, they will serve to increase the government's sense that survival lies through oppression.

President Assad's resort to bombarding centres of opposition into submission doesn't represent a mindless resort to violence. Nor is it influenced by the pusillanimity or otherwise of the outside world. His family want to kill armed revolt because they feel they must if it is not to grow, and because they still feel they might win given that demonstrations have not spread to the second city of Aleppo nor the centre of Damascus. They'd be doing it whether the UN had voted against them or not.

But that's a long way from saying that the lack of mass civil protest in some parts of Syria reflects some residual support for President Assad. People said the same of Colonel Gaddafi in Tripoli. Yet when the rebels appeared at the doors, the city capitulated with barely a few days of struggle.

The Damascus regime is a hollow one. For Russia to refuse to attend today's meeting in Tunis on the grounds that it is one-sided without representatives of the Syrian government is just specious. Of course, it is one-sided. There is no point in talking to a regime which has lost all credibility. What the Tunis gathering needs to make clear to the Syrian people more than anyone else is that Assad's day is over, that the country's neighbours and the international community at large no longer recognises it.

China and Russia are not important. They may continue to trade and even supply arms to the Damascus government, but the region in which it operates – the EU, Turkey and the Arab world – no longer has a place for the President and his family other than in the International Court of Criminal Justice.

That matters because, in the end, it is in the region where the country has its closest relationships and in which it has to live. We can't provide a magic solution to the present plight of Syria but we can start preparing the circumstances of its future.

Don't believe all the optimism coming from the conference on Somalia

If the West is tempted to grandstand the efforts to find solutions for Syria in Tunis today, David Cameron was already at it at full pitch in the London conference on Somalia yesterday.

The last time we had such a meeting it was Tony Blair hosting a conference on the Yemen, and look where that went. This occasion should be a little more constructive. After 21 years of civil war, there is some hope that the intervention of African Union forces and a return to normality in the capital, Mogadishu, might lead to a more stable future.

A word of caution, however. The civil war isn't over. The Islamist al-Shabaab group still controls most of the centre and south of the country and is not represented at the conference. Peace, in so far as it exists, has been brought about by troops from neighbouring African countries, all of whom have political interests of their own.

The UK government has decided to hold the conference in London and the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has chosen to attend not because Britain and the US are concerned about the Somali people and their future, but because piracy and civil war have threatened their own interests.

Already UK officials are talking of sending in military advisers and cancelling the arms embargo on the country. Looking at the experience of Afghanistan, the optimism may prove premature.

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