No one can count the dead with accuracy.
20 brutal days have elapsed since Russia and China exercised their vetoed in the United Nations Security Council, nixing a power-sharing agreement with Bashar al-Assad and triggering a ferocious onslaught of opposition territory. Under pressure to crush Syria’s opposition before any future political developments, al-Assad and his security forces would succeed where Muammar Gaddafi failed. In contrast to Gaddafi’s mad dash to Benghazi, which NATO warheads prematurely ended at the last moment, Syria’s military has reduced Homs to a graveyard. At least 300 people were reported dead in the first five day of shelling, suggesting an enormous death toll over the last three weeks, and NATO warplanes are nowhere to be found.
The overriding question: when and how will foreign powers come to the rescue?
Unfortunately for the entire Syrian populace, Homs’s chaotic front is mirrored by entrenched divisions at the geopolitical level. Discontent with the Obama administration’s response is growing inside Washington, applying two contradicting sources of pressure. On one side, more conservative elements are beginning to chafe at the administration's abandonment of Syria’s opposition, citing a “win” for Russia and Iran. On the other side, those fearing another Libyan mission employ a variety of objections against intervention, leading observers to draw links between Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. The nebulous introduction of al-Qaeda in Iraq (still unconfirmed) further spooked the Pentagon from arming the opposition, a warning that ultimately feeds into al-Assad’s narrative. Syria’s opposition is too divided, too unknown and thus too unpredictable for Washington’s tastes, especially since U.S. obedience is far from guaranteed.
Though valid, these precautions are leading many observers to predict that the Obama administration will not repeat Libya’s campaign. European officials such as British Foreign Minister William Hague also argue that Syria’s death toll (estimated between 6,000 and 8,000) is excessively high, but still not high enough to justify military intervention. When combined with military assurances from Russia and Iran, al-Assad is feeling too confident for someone in his position as he escalates a nation-wide crackdown.
U.S. officials have promised imminent action in response to Syria’s rising bloodshed, Russian-Chinese resistance and internal political pressure. The “Friends of Syria” will convene on Friday in Tunisia to discuss future options and punitive punishments for al-Assad’s regime, starting with a demand for periodic ceasefires. The Syrian National Council will also be recognized “as a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change,” leaving space to absorb other oppositional groups. However these measures will yield no tangible effects on the ground without a comprehensive politico-military strategy to back them up.
For now Washington and Europe continue to rely on the Arab League’s faulty power-sharing agreement, a deal that Moscow supports in theory but opposes in reality.
Despite vouching for a crumbling regime, al-Assad’s allies are minimizing their strategic disadvantage by sticking close together and refusing to budge. Many figures in the international media have accurately compared the West and Gulf’s hesitation with Russia and China’s decisive support for al-Assad. The end result is a vicious fourth-generation conflict: high-intensity asymmetric warfare in Syria’s streets and gridlock in the political arena. Walking sideways rather than backward, Moscow announced that it would skip Tunisia’s summit as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeated his demand for “dialogue” on Thursday. Lavrov vocally supported a replication of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) power-sharing initiative in Yemen, a deal that recently transferred executive power from Ali Abdullah Saleh to vice president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi.
Now Moscow and Beijing seek “a speedy end to any violence in Syria and the launch of inclusive dialogue between the authorities and the opposition without preconditions for a settlement, and that excluded foreign intervention in Syrian affairs.”
Interestingly, this prospect was ruled out on Wednesday by King Abdullah Al Saud himself during a teleconference with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, setting up a conflict of interests with Western and Gulf capitals. Angered by Moscow’s failure to “coordinate with the Arabs” before vetoing the UNSC’s resolution, Abdullah was quoted by the Saudi Press Agency as saying, “Now any dialogue about what happened is pointless.” Given the King’s pattern of supporting cooperative satellites and opposing Iran’s ally, Saudi troops could represent the most militarily and politically feasible option at the moment.
The question then becomes: is Abdullah as willing to send the GCC’s Peninsula Shield into a hot war-zone?
For their part most oppositional elements aren’t requesting a Libyan-style air raid, only enough military and humanitarian support to finish the job themselves. This process will take longer than Libya’s insurgency - an indefinite period of years with no guarantee of success - but its progressive nature could generate the most stable path towards a democratic transition. Speaking in London, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned al-Assad of “increasingly capable opposition forces. They will from somewhere, somehow find the means to defend themselves as well as begin offensive measures.” This rhetoric suggests that Western and Gulf forces will increase the flow of arms into oppositional hands (a process suspected to be in its early stages), but only when Syria’s opposition has coalesced and openly identified itself.
“We will do everything we can to avoid a Libya-style intervention," Syrian National Council executive member Bassma Kodmani told TIME on Tuesday. "We aren't talking about regime change. We're talking about Syrians themselves achieving the removal of the regime."
Syria’s pro-democracy movement possess the resiliency to weather al-Assad’s offensive and eventually counterattack his regime, even if this struggle exceeds a decade. Waiting too long to intervene, though, could lead directly to the regional chaos that foreign powers currently fear.