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Syria and the Climate Change Approach

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The international community knows that the situation is bad and getting worse but lacks the unity and political capital to do anything about it

When will we arrive at a tipping point in Syria? This is the frequently asked question that followed the early momentum of the uprising in 2011, the bloody siege of Baba Amr in March, the double suicide bombing in Damascus and the bloody massacre of children and civilians in Hula in May.

Despite the lack of access for international media the outside world cannot claim to be ignorant of what is happening in the country. True the details are murky and there remain huge questions of whom/what the Shabiha are and the extent of Al Qaeda penetration, but more or less the daily toll of bloodshed is known both in figures and horrific stories. Behind the main headlines I've seen videos of people buried alive by men in army uniforms, heard stories of skinned bodies being returned to terrified relatives and attended events where various members of the opposition talk of the desperate plight that sections of the Syrian population are enduring.

Despite a brief lull when the Annan plan was launched the violence has steadily increased and the notion that the cease fire is holding is a tragic testimony to international impotence towards the conflict. Like climate change the vast majority of the global population know that what is going on is bad, but the mechanisms of international governance, and in particular the United Nations charged with the 'responsibility to protect', simple cannot respond.

The Annan plan is like the Kyoto Treaty, the best and only game in town but completely unsuited for the scale of what it is trying to address. The world's major powers are trapped in a comfortable inertia. The Europeans and the Americans are happy to make diplomatic gestures, like throwing out Syrian Ambassadors, and talking about how the Assad regime has lost legitimacy, but their biggest effort to unite the Syrian opposition remains half-baked to say the least. The Chinese and the Russians meanwhile, still smarting from being conned on Libya UNSCR 1973 and with deep strategic and economic ties with Syria, are stonewalling any movement at the United Nations.

Yet even if the Russians and Chinese unblocked the UN route, the US administration, along with NATO, has ruled out military intervention. The US is in an election year and is hugely war weary, whilst the Europeans simply don't have the resources in the age of austerity to commit to what would likely be a longer and far more bloody operation that the one to remove Gaddafi.

Put simply even if the Syria opposition, united and with proven legitimacy with an acceptable post-Assad transition plan, requested military intervention it is very unlikely to come from the US or Europe. French President Francois Hollande's statements over potential military intervention are only made in the full knowledge that the Russians will never let it actually happen.

Meanwhile the Syrian regime is analogous to the most extreme form of climate change deniers. There are too many instances of this to mention but I was struck by the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister claim on Tuesday that "Syria has not committed a single violation of Annan's plan". The regime feels comfortable with a divided international community that lacks the willpower to get involved. After all Ba'athist Syria is a country that has survived significant isolation and sanctions in the past, it even had its Embassy chucked out of the country after the Hindawi Affair in 1986.

Reports suggest that 15,000 have died in Syria to date, that number could increase to 30,000 by the end of the year and there are no reasons to think that events similar to the Hula massacre could be repeated again and again and again.

Beyond the bravery of those who continued to resist the regime, many are looking for creative and determined action from Turkey and the Gulf states. Otherwise we may find ourselves in the 'Silver Bullet' period that characterised policy towards Iraq between 1991-2003. Here, behind a shield of sanctions that devastated the civilian population of Iraq, Washington and its allies hoped that a senior military figure could kill Saddam and take over the reins of the state. Interestingly enough when discussing such a scenario and tipping points is hearing what the Syrian consul general in California, Hazem Chehabi, had to say following his defection from the regime this week: "you get to a point where your silence, or inaction, becomes ethically or morally unacceptable. The recent barbaric massacre that took place in Houla, for me was a tipping point".

With the international system in a comfortable gridlock we may have to look in more unlikely places for something to change the current bloody dynamic in Syria.