Many western diplomats have lost patience with the Assad government since the Houla massacre. But a peaceful solution to the crisis seems more unlikely than ever, as the regime bides its time.
Kofi Annan, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, travelled to Damascus on Monday to save what is left of the peace plan that carries his name. He told President Bashar al-Assad that only "courageous steps" would save the plan, but fewer and fewer western states believe that the Syrian regime is prepared to take those steps.
On Tuesday, in response to last Friday's massacre in Houla, where at least 108 people were killed, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle expelled the Syrian ambassador to Germany. France, Britain, Italy, Spain, and Canada did the same. "We expect that our unambiguous message will not fall on deaf ears in Damascus," said Westerwelle.
The massacre, whose victims were murdered in two separate "collective executions," according to Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has exhausted the patience of several western diplomats. Westerwelle's statement was direct: "It is clear, and not just since Houla, that Syria has no future under Assad. He must make way for a peaceful transition in Syria."
'The population is being slaughtered'
The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) now sees its position strengthened. A spokesman told Deutsche Welle that Houla had made it obvious that the Annan plan was not achieving its main objective: to protect the Syrian population from state violence.
"The UN observers are not observing a ceasefire anymore - they're just counting the dead," said the spokesman, who remained unnamed for security reasons. "The population must defend itself," he said. "And that is only possible by military means, through the Free Syrian Army, which is made up of former officers and soldiers of the army. So it has a duty to protect the Syrian population. The time of dictatorship and tyranny is over - the Syrian population is becoming aware that it is being slaughtered."
Problems of a 'Yemeni solution'
In the face of hardening positions on both sides, the so-called "Yemeni solution," once championed by US President Barack Obama, is becoming increasingly unlikely. As his position became increasingly untenable following mass protests, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh handed over power to his Vice-President Abdo Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi, who was then democratically elected as the new president. Western diplomats are hoping that such a solution could work in Syria, and that it would meet with Russia's approval, as Moscow has so far rejected any "violent" regime change.
Saleh stepped down in Yemen; there's little chance of Assad following suit
But the SNC believes that a non-violent solution is no longer possible. "The Damascus regime will only fall, and the massacres will only stop, when the international community intervenes," the spokesman said. "The regime will only give up power when they see NATO planes in the sky."
An international conflict
But Lebanese historian and writer Georges Corm, author of several books on the Middle East, is pessimistic. "The foreign intervention against the Syrian regime is keeping the conflict going," he told DW. "Of course, one can see that the regime must make way for new forces. But the massive intervention from foreign powers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but also Turkey, have provoked Russia and China to their no less entrenched positions. That's why the violence in Syria goes way beyond a purely regional conflict."
That demonstrates the dilemma that the Assad regime is in: it suspects that simply changing heads of state and government leaders would be not enough for Syria's enemies. As an ally of Iran, and with traditionally close relations to the Lebanese Hezbollah, Syria plays a central role in the Shiite power block in the region.
Corm says that its Sunni rivals, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, want more than a few new faces in the Syrian government, and so Assad suspects that the west will not really be satisfied with a "Yemeni solution" either - the US and its allies wants to remove a regime that has always presented a danger to Israel. For Assad, therefore, the Yemeni solution is not an option - as far as he is concerned, the fall of his regime represents a first step to nothing less than a new, western-controlled reorganization of the entire Middle East.
Rising anti-western sentiment
That's why, says Corm, the Syrian regime is certainly prepared to talk to the opposition - "though only with the opposition inside the country, not the one influenced by the US, France, and Turkey."
At the moment, however, the regime is following a policy of violent suppression that could actually play into the hands of the opposition. The continuing brutality is creating an appetite for armed resistance, argued the SNC spokesman: "The people are saying, 'Why is the west not helping us, if it is the center of freedom, democracy and human rights?' "Any solution - Yemeni or otherwise - is becoming less and less likely.
Author: Kersten Knipp / bk
Editor: Michael Lawton