In Homs they are burying their dead under cover of darkness for fear that the mourners themselves will become the next victims.

Syrian government forces are setting out to strike the city’s makeshift clinics, where the floor is already slick with blood. The rebels in Homs have guns, but they are no match for the army’s tanks. And yet the butchery seems only to fire the conviction among the city’s inhabitants that state violence must not prevail against the popular will.

The outside world, to its shame, has shown no such resolve. A vote on February 4, in the UN Security Council, condemning Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, and calling on him to hand over powers to his deputy, was defeated thanks to vetoes from Russia and China. For Al Assad, this was the impunity he needed to redouble the killing. Earlier a ramshackle mission to Syria by the Arab League had ended in bickering. Division has eviscerated international co-operation just when the turmoil whipped up by the Arab Spring makes it essential. The people of Syria deserve better. With the number of dead rapidly climbing above 7,000, the world has a responsibility to act. It also has an interest. Syria occupies a vital position in the Middle East, jammed between Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Israel and Lebanon, and allied with Russia and Iran.

Shifting Al Assad from power as fast as possible is essential. It is too late for him to negotiate an accommodation with his people by overseeing reform and an increase in democracy.

Al Assad’s repeated resort to violence has earned him the permanent distrust of most of his people. Any freedom they gain would immediately become a means to resist him. For the good of Syria and the region, therefore, the aim must be both to dethrone Al Assad and also to minimise the loss of life. The pity is that, just now, those goals are at odds.


As tyrants go, Al Assad has two advantages. One is his willingness to do whatever it takes to put down the rebellion. Whereas the troops in Cairo’s Tahrir Square would not fire into the crowd, Syrian soldiers are steeped in blood. Although some have switched sides rather than kill their compatriots, Al Assad commands crack units and a relatively loyal officer corps, as well as tanks, heavy artillery and an air force. Syria’s rebel irregulars could not beat them in a head-on fight.

His second advantage is others’ lack of unity — not only at the UN and in the Arab League, but also among Syria’s opposition. The Syrian National Council is a divided gaggle of exiles, with only limited authority in a place they still call home. Inside Syria there is a ragtag of militias, gangs and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), mainly soldiers who have deserted the regime.

The most direct answer is to even up the fight by flooding Syria with arms or, perhaps, bombing Al Assad’s troops in their barracks. But such a focus on firepower would play into Al Assad’s hands: the grounds on which he would most like to fight are military.

Foreign bombing would satisfy outsiders’ urge to do something — anything — to show their outrage. But even in Libya, which had a front-line and a terrain more vulnerable to aerial attack, bombing took a long time to weaken Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. In Syria it would have less military value.

The time may come when supplying weapons to the opposition makes sense. But such a policy would not suddenly turn the opposition into a fighting force. And a country awash with weapons would be plagued by the very violence that the world was seeking to avoid.

Far better to attack Al Assad’s regime where it is vulnerable — by peeling away his support, both at home among Syria’s minorities and abroad, especially in Russia, its chief defender on the UN Security Council. Syria’s fractious opposition must unite. A contact group of outside powers and the opposition could channel money into Syria, as well as help with communications and logistics. With a single voice and a credible leader, the opposition could seek to reassure the merchants, Kurds and Christians who back Al Assad that they will be safer and more prosperous without him. The Russians would also begin to shift ground.

Turkey, with the blessing of Nato and the Arab League, should create and defend a safe haven in north-western Syria. The FSA can train fighters there, and a credible opposition can take shape.  Turkey seems willing to do this, providing it gets western support. The haven would be similar to that created for the Kurds in northern Iraq; Al Assad would suffer only if he attacked it.

A haven carries risks, if only because the opposition is so fractious. But it is likely to cause less bloodshed than joining the civil war directly or letting Al Assad slaughter his people at will. And a free patch of Syria would be powerful evidence that Al Assad’s brutal days are numbered.             –The Economist