In the rebellious backstreets of Damascus, middle-aged men shake their heads as soldiers fire over the heads of the protesters who still make their point after Friday prayers at the mosques every week, muttering about the arrest squads who will come by in the next hour to seize their sons.
In the swankier, redeveloped districts, businessmen and smart young things who believe the government’s narrative that Syria is under assault from a conspiracy of foreign Islamist terrorists also shake their heads and express forlorn hopes that “things will return to normal” – the improvement of their lives heralded by the regime’s belated economic reforms over the last decade. As they have no say in government, they have no idea either how to bring it about.
From the outside, UN monitors, politicians and a plethora of bureaucracies from the Arab League to the Red Cross issue dire warnings of the “slide” to civil war.
But President Assad is not moving and does not seem to need to, so long as enough of his army are either loyal or at least frightened enough of both their officers and of the opposition to do his will.
Nor are the opposition in any mood – they would say position – to give up on the regime’s overthrow and submit to negotiations about a future in which the Assads stay in some sort of power.
The rising wave of bombings just adds a new despair to the mix – whether those responsible are the rebels, as the government claims, or the regime itself. In a sense, as the UN’s chief monitor, Maj-Gen Robert Mood suggested on Wednesday, it does not really matter who is responsible; the image conjured up is of the Lebanon 30 years ago, an unwished-for but uncontrollable rush to ungovernable chaos, some of it sectarian, much of it indiscriminate.
The situation is a call to action. But if there were ever any chance of that – and, to be fair, none of those to whom the rebels have turned, neither America, nor Britain and France, nor even the outspoken Gulf states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have ever promised much – it is getting more remote, not less.
The coalition that managed, at the last gasp, to get rid of Col Gaddafi in Libya last year is rudderless. It was President Nicolas Sarkozy, closely followed up by Prime Minister David Cameron, who led the charge then, with Silvio Berlusconi of Italy in colourful support.
President Sarkozy has gone. Mr Cameron, who 14 months ago was still in the flush of electoral success and basking in the approval of the credit ratings agencies, seems irretrievably weakened by recession and political division. He never looked like the man to bully fellow world-leaders into taking a bold stand over a faraway country; it seems impossible now. Mr Berlusconi, as he always did, has other things on his mind.
President Barack Obama led, rather brilliantly, from behind over Libya. But can he really become embroiled in a war in Syria when his re-election bid is premised on his success in bringing ones in Iraq and Afghanistan nearer a close?
State department officials wink knowingly, saying there is more than we cannot see, that no-one was ever depending on the Annan peace iniative actually to bring peace. But those are reminiscent of the nods and winks with which we were assured Saddam Hussein of Iraq could not survive the uprisings against his rule that followed the first Gulf War, in 1991.
He put them down with brutality, and held on for another 12 years.
Sanctions can reduce Syria to its knees, and make it politically explosive, as they did to Iraq. Isolation will make it closer to Iran – a useful outcome, perhaps, for those who wish to see the Ayatollahs embarrassed, but not for anyone else.
But that this crisis will linger on, perhaps indefinitely, ever more painfully, now seems sure. Only decisiveness would change the trajectory of events, and if politicians around the world can agree on anything, it is that now is not a time for decisiveness.
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