BEIRUT (Reuters) - Thirty years ago Hafez al-Assad cut phone lines from Hama to stop word spreading of his bloody crackdown on an uprising in the city, ensuring that the 1982 Syrian revolt was crushed and many thousands killed before the world even knew of it.
Three decades on, his son is 18 months into a military campaign waged, despite efforts at censorship, in the glare of a global media spotlight; but Bashar too can rely on Cold War-era divisions among major powers, and a growing sense of impotence and indifference, to shield him from armed foreign intervention.
A bloody winter lies ahead, many observers believe, with each side short of a killer blow and little sign of restraint.
More than 1,000 people are now being killed in Syria every week, according to activists who collate reports from various sources. Some are rebels, some loyalists; many are civilians.
Instead of stirring ever greater outrage, the remorseless violence seems instead to have numbed an outside world which has no answers to Syria’s nightmare, giving Assad free rein to ratchet up the firepower against opponents who began protesting in the streets and are now fighting an ill-matched civil war.
Air raids by jet-bombers and strafing by helicopter gunships against residential districts have become a daily routine, while reports of hundreds killed in the town of Daraya three weeks ago elicited barely more than token condemnation abroad.
“There is a dwindling public engagement with the issue outside Syria and that reflects the grinding relentlessness of the conflict,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s not mobilizing Western populations to push governments to take action.”
Even if Western powers felt greater pressure to act, they are hamstrung by fears of stirring wider regional conflict, by reluctance to arm Assad’s foes and by deadlock at the United Nations where Russia and China have blocked moves against him.
The one case where the United State set a “red line” which might trigger a military response - Assad deploying his chemical weapons - may have served only to embolden the Syrian leader.
“They have effectively said: ‘We won’t intervene unless you use chemical weapons’,” Barnes-Dacey said. “Assad has felt liberated to use more violence.
“There has been a surge in government brutality and government-led violence and that hasn’t provoked any reaction.”
Underlining the apparent license which the Syrian government feels the global inaction has granted it, three members of a moderate opposition group which has operated with official permission were detained shortly after their return from Beijing with a promise of Chinese support, a group spokesman said.
“WE’VE LOST HOPE”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition body which collates reports of violence, estimates more than 27,000 Syrians have died since March last year and, on a typical day last week said 250 people were killed on Thursday. That included at least 30 in an air strike on a fuel station. Forty-six soldiers were killed by rebel attacks and in clashes, it said.
“The world is just not responding. We have lost hope that people are going to help us,” said one opposition activist who identified himself as Jacob, speaking from the southern Damascus district of Yarmouk where locals complain of frequent bombing.
The increasing use of the firepower of one of the Middle East’s larger armies does not ensure victory for the 47-year-old Assad, who has lost control of border crossings with Turkey and Iraq, large areas of the north and parts of most Syrian cities.
But after the assassination on July 18 of four top security officers he has clawed back control of most of the capital and his overwhelming military superiority, particularly in the air, means rebels have little prospect of driving him out.
Assad’s resort to air strikes in areas beyond his control created new waves of refugees and led Turkey to revive a call for ‘safe havens’ inside Syria - an idea which quickly faded since no government seems ready yet to defend the zones.
Another concern for Western powers stems from the sectarian slant of the mainly Sunni Muslim rebellion against Assad - who comes from the Alawite minority close to Shi’ite Islam - and the presence of Sunni Islamist and jihadi fighters in rebel ranks.
“No one wants to risk another Afghanistan, supporting rebels who turn out to be jihadi,” said Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, referring to Western support for Afghan mujahideen who fought Soviet occupiers in the 1980s and then turned against the West.
Evidence of atrocities committed by rebel forces have also clouded Western talk of aid: “If you give support,” Perthes said, “Even just logistical, non-lethal and humanitarian - you cannot ignore it if the movement you are supporting starts to act in the same way as the regime they are trying to overthrow.”
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said this week that Syria remained high on the international agenda, but that world powers were paralyzed by the impasse at the United Nations.
“I would not say that the world has lost interest. In fact, the whole world does not know exactly what to do,” Elaraby told reporters in Cairo. “And this is shameful, definitely this is shameful, because people are dying every day.”
For its part, Russia, backed by China, has resisted efforts to employ the United Nations against Assad. Moscow and Beijing say that is a cover for Western meddling in Syria’s affairs.
Closer to Damascus, regional powers have taken sides along lines that reflect a wider confrontation between Shi’ite Muslim, non-Arab Iran - Assad’s key sponsor - and Sunni leaders in the Arab League and Turkey giving the rebels aid and some weapons.
For all the human cost of stalemate, however, the specter of the turmoil and sectarian slaughter what followed the U.S. occupation of neighboring Iraq will give second thoughts to any European or American leader contemplating intervention in Syria.
Yet same critics say that standing entirely on the sidelines should not be an option for Western governments: “Doing nothing at this point is the worst thing,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“It will ensure our worst nightmare comes true.”
He said that U.S. reluctance to engage with rebel fighters as the uprising was taking on military form several months ago now left Washington without leverage over the armed groups - and unable to prevent weapons flowing to hardline Islamist elements.
That could increase a risk, he said, that Syria might be transformed from a state controlled by allies of U.S. enemy Iran to one run by equally anti-Western Islamists - albeit only after further, prolonged fighting.
“The regime is not going to go down easily, and we are staring into the abyss,” Tabler said.
“It’s going to be a very bloody winter.”
Additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Cairo; Editing by Alastair Macdonald
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