Watching a nation implode is a heart- and gut-wrenching experience. Tens of thousands of innocents die. Cities and towns are damaged beyond repair. Generations will pass before the hate subsides. This was the way of Yugoslavia as it broke apart in the 1990s, Rhodesia in the 1970s, too much of Latin America in the 1980s. The world watches and debates what, if anything, can be done to stop the bloodshed, to end the destruction. The answer invariably is nothing whatsoever.
Syria is not Libya or Egypt. The Libyan revolution had a small population living in a narrow strip of land near the Mediterranean. There were clear front lines between the regime and rebel forces. It was easy for the West to impose a no-fly zone, just as easy as when they imposed a no-fly zone on Iraq in the 1990s. In Egypt, the revolution didn’t last long enough to require an intervention. It was over in weeks, not months, with remarkably little loss of life.
But Syria is a densely populated country where the “front lines” are streets in residential neighborhoods and the main streets of small towns. The “front lines” shift daily as the regime and the rebels take and lose territories. There is no organized revolt as there was in Libya, no clear on-the-ground leadership. And there is an added faction in Syria – foreign fighters, real terrorists, representing Islamic jihadist groups with no real loyalty or interest in the people of Syria, dedicated only to the establishment of more and more Islamist-run nations. Bashar al Assad’s characterization of the rebellion as “foreign terrorists” became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The longer the rebellion went on, the more of them infiltrated the country. They are not welcomed by the real Syrian rebels, except as deliverers of more weapons, and they only serve to justify the regime’s defense of itself.
Information is fractured, disjointed. The regime puts out its version of events. The opposition based in London puts out the counter-version. There are not enough independent observers to provide facts instead of contradictory propaganda.
There is no end game for Bashar al Assad. The rebels will not stop. This isn’t 1983, and this civil war isn’t limited to one city in revolt. Al Assad can hold on to power and end up like Ali Saleh of Yemen, an overseer of a never-ending civil war, holed up in his palace unable to govern, holding elections that resolve nothing, negotiating retreats that never happen, until Syria is as lawless and devastated as Yemen. He can die, along with his family, as more and more of his army defects and he finally loses this war. He can flee, if there is anywhere for him to go, and then face criminal charges from the International Criminal Courts for crimes against humanity.
Or, out of desperation, he can do the unthinkable, the thing the entire West, including Russia, fears he will do – use Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons against his own people. At that point, no one would condemn the country that launched a missile at the Presidential Palace in Damascus.