Diplomatic tit-for-tat betrays a lack of imagination over Syria

President al-Assad can count on Russian support, but social media means his internal repression cannot be ignored forever

Column LAST UPDATED AT 07:41 ON Wed 6 Jun 2012

SYRIA'S expulsion of 17 senior diplomats, including the ambassadors of the UK, USA, France, and seven other western governments, is a confession of failure and frustration as much as a gesture of international defiance.

It is another sign, if any were needed, of impasse – with all sides running out of imagination and capacity for manoeuvre. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, has warned of Syria heading for "catastrophe" and a state of civil war.

The nice distinctions between communal violence, state repression, massacre and outright civil war seem excessively academic. While there is no war between recognisable armies - however informal - a condition of continuous conflict has gripped many communities in Syria, including parts of the capital, for more than a year.

The problem is that none of the protagonists has the ability to bring about an end to the conflict or warfare within the foreseeable future.

The Baathist regime is pretending that it needs only the backing of Beijing and Moscow to claim international support. At the weekend they seemed to get that again with the public announcements during President Vladimir Putin's visit to Beijing. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said that both Russia and China opposed interference in Syria's internal affairs, but urged "international dialogue".

An unusually powerful endorsement of the Assad regime was given by the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I last week in Moscow on the opening of an exhibition of artefacts of Syrian Christianity – to which Syrian diplomats were invited. In a letter, the Patriarch said the Syrian regime was the protector of Christian minorities in Syria, and added that "the carcasses of defiled churches remain in our country" – harking back to repression of the Russian church under the Communists.

As the fighting goes on, Russia will be asked to send more ammunition, weapons and replacements and spares for the Syrian army's armoured vehicles. Russia will feel the pinch, not only from international opinion, but also from increasingly difficult access by land and sea, and concerns about payment. Even the two key ports of Tartus and Latakia are scenes of bitter fighting between the military and insurgents.

It is evident that the Assad family has now decided to fight it out to the finish. President Bashar al-Assad's brother Maher, Commander of the 4th Armoured Division, has set up a separate secret military headquarters in Deraa to direct the army's campaign of repression.

Assad's cousin, Brigadier-General Atef Najib, head of the political directorate in Deraa, is reported to have given orders to shoot into crowds of demonstrators, according to eyewitnesses on Channel 4's Dispatches programme.

With the campaign of terror being run by family members round the country, President Assad himself is left to conduct the increasingly challenging public relations operation in Damascus. On June 4th he declared to parliament that, "not even monsters" would have stooped to the massacre of women and children in Houla, and denied any involvement of state forces.

The massacre at Houla, in which well over 100 died and almost twice as many were wounded, is now generally thought to be the work of Alawite 'shabiha' militias.

This puts the Assad family on the spot. Back in the 1970s, similar gangs of militias and thugs – shabiha means 'ghost' – were conjured up by Rifaat al-Assad, the hard man younger brother of President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father.

They were used in the brutal suppression of an uprising by Sunni militants in Hama in 1982, killing tens of thousands. Rifaat was deemed subsequently too hot to handle even by the stern Hafez al-Assad, and was pushed into exile – and now resides in London and the French Riviera.

The fuss about Hama eventually died down as the elder Assad was deemed to be a force for stability in the Cold War balance of power in the Middle East.

Robert Fisk of The Independent, who visited Hama in 1982, conjectures that much the same will happen over massacres like Houla. He argues that thuggish regimes have got away with mass murder repeatedly in the recent past – in Syria, Yemen and Algeria. He recently wrote: "We in the West will soon forget Houla when another YouTube image of death flicks on to our screens from the Syrian countryside. Or Yemen. Or from the next revolution."

This argument works only to a degree. The difference between the massacres at Hama in 1982 and Houla in 2012 is the relentless flow of images and messages through social media. This is what Damascus cannot afford to ignore, nor can the governments of the West and the agencies like the UN. The internet was almost a decade away in 1982. Now it is the firelighter fuel for the continuing state of warfare, civil and uncivil that is burning in Syria - and is beginning to crackle and spark across the borders in Lebanon and Turkey. · 

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We, in the "West", remain impotent in the face of Russian and Chinese objections - Assad knows this and so do we in the "West" - so, William Hague may huff and puff for all he is worth - we have no vital strategic interest in Syria - Russia does.

Even if we did have a vital strategic interest in Syria, or in the outcome of this (undeclared) civil war, we remain totally unable to affect the desired outcome, from our own point of view.

It is important to understand (as Blair did not, with Iraq) that nations should only ever contemplate military action as a last resort, when all other avenues of persuasion have been exhausted AND vital strategic interests are at stake - and only then, of course, if we have the military means at our disposal (which we, Great Britain, certainly do not have).

Hand in hand with any proposed military intervention must go a full understanding of the various and opposing religious factions within Syria, which make up the "opposition" and a clear plan for a "Post Regime" administration, rather that a repeat of the utter shambles following the last Iraq invasion by the West.

The final consideration, and probably the most important, is the necessary backing of the International Community for any military intervention.Over to you, Mr Hague!

unfortunately, here in the "middle of nowhere" Australia, our current economic situation depends very much on the Chinese desire/need to purchase vast amounts of our raw mineral resources, so.. our Government, who, in the first instance, answers to United States political directives; simply has no will nor power to do or say anything of consequence about the diabolical situation in Syria.I guess we can be just a little grateful that the Syrian diplomatic mission was expelled from Australia earlier this week.Don't hold your breath for any further action.....besides, we are still  somewhat committed supporting 'other Missions" in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

 Pardon my saying this, but your and warped and flawed.

For one, for external (foreign countries) to sponsor a rebellion in Syria, and then turn around to claim that a sovereign country protecting itself from armed rebellion amounts to 'REPRESSION' suggests that western media still reckons that they are broadcasting and writing to a dumb world .. STILL.

Secondly, for western countries to expel syrian diplomats without any firm proof that they were the culprits in the summary of executions of civilians in the dead the night, suggests that the foreign backers of the syrian 'rebels' are probably western countries.

Now, why would the west want Assad out?  Well, it is an open secret that assad and syria are just side targets.  The real/ultimate target is Iran, and syria just needs a regime change and the implantation of a puppet regime to make it easier to take on Iran when the west is ready. 

So, while the western media wallow in their invisibility in using the media to create whatever false impression they wish, most of the rest of the world watch in bemusement and in full realization of what is going.  Now, is it possible that all this might-is-right oppression and imperialism the west has recently applied in places like iraq, ivory coast, libya, and now syria could come back and bite them hard someday?  .. That is the million dollar question!!!