Syria: nothing can be done to stop bloodshed – but there is one hope

A senior UK diplomat says Assad's own Alawites might turn on his 'crooked' family. But Syria is not the only intractable crisis…

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:39 ON Mon 18 Jun 2012

THE SUSPENSION of the United Nations monitoring mission in Syria, and news that units of the army have begun a new wave of systematic shelling of cities, has turned up the volume of the international clamour for something to be done to halt the fighting.
 
Following Hillary Clinton's accusation that Russia might be sending attack helicopters to the Syrian forces, it has emerged that a ship carrying refurbished MI-24 Hind attack helicopters is en route from Kaliningrad. Washington has asked Britain to help withdraw insurance cover for the cargo, so the ship will have to return to the port of origin.
 
In fact the helicopters belong to Syria and were being repaired at the Russian Mil plant in Kaliningrad. Whatever else happens, the incident has at least drawn a public statement from the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov that Moscow "does not supply offensive weapons to Syria".

At the same time, France is proposing sending equipment and trainers to help the Free Syrian Army. But British and US military commanders and senior diplomats are doubtful that there is a practical means of helping the insurgents against the Assad regime - short of invasion.
 
A senior British diplomat with direct experience of Syria told me this weekend that there are almost no options for international military action, even if it is backed by the UN. Two things might happen in the next few months that together could bring the fighting to an end. First, opponents within Assad's own Alawite community must remove the Assad family from the regime. Then Russia could broker a deal between the remaining Alawites in the regime and elements of the opposition.
 
The senior diplomat, who was speaking to me on condition of anonymity, said the Assad family are seen "as a bunch of crooks lining their own pockets and now fighting to stay in power" by many of the Alawite community, including some officers in the forces and senior officials in the administration.
 
He said members of minority groups, such as the local Eastern Rite Christians and Druze, had gone along with the regime believing that the Assads were their only guarantee of survival. These, he said, had put themselves on the "wrong side of history". He said much of the conflict was very local, based on burning communal and tribal rivalries - and therefore it was difficult to find any credible interlocutor for the opposition as a whole.

More sobering, if anything, are the views of senior strategic analysts in Whitehall, who see Syria as only one of several major crises threatening international and British security. "Yes, Syria is very serious, and we are working on contingencies for what may happen there all the time," a senior analyst told me at the weekend. "But there are other equally worrying crises looming."  

One of these is the potential collapse of the euro, leading to serious unrest, while another is the prospect of military action between Israel and Iran over Tehran's nuclear programme. The latter is now likely to run through the summer until the US presidential election.
 
The senior analyst said one of the big unknowns was what might happen now in Egypt. Implosion would mean "84 million very disturbed and angry Egyptians in a country and region where Britain still has substantial interests".

The immediate prospect is that the cry "something must be done" will increase in volume. Little will be done, unless an outrage on the scale of the Serb massacre of thousands of Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995 is uncovered. That led to direct military intervention by Nato in Bosnia, which forced the warring parties to make a deal at Dayton.

This time, there is no Dayton on the horizon, because even after 15 months of conflict and violence, there is no credible leadership and voice for the opposition to the murderous Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad. · 

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What a complete mess! To even hint at a joint US/British "invasion" of Syria reveals a parlous lack of any grasp on reality - in no time at all, Iran (Assad's main ally in the region) would enter the fray - probably by sending the Revolutionary Guards into Syria - then, all bets are off - the Russians would feel compelled to reassert their regional influence, if only to reassure their other allies throughout the world that they can be relied upon to protect them in difficult times.

The rest, as they say, is history - a very serious Middle Eastern conflagration that would make Iraq look like a side show, with potential for the superpowers to directly confront each other militarily as perhaps never seen since the Cuban missile crisis - one can almost guarantee that Israel would quickly get involved, probably by nipping at Syria's heels on their common border and along the Golan heights - at America's behest of course.

Cool heads are needed here - this is certainly not the time for Cameron to be nodding in vacuous agreement and compliance to any US request for moral and military support in Syria - after all, our armed forces are suicidally overstretched as it is.

Interesting times!