11/06/2012 12:15 BST | Updated 10/08/2012 06:12 BST

Back to the Future of Intervention With Syria

Richard Chew writes about the need for Western intervention in Syria and compares the current crisis to that of thirty years ago when the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood led a Sunni resistance to Hafez Al-Assad's minority Alawite regime.

Rebellion against Assad. Bombs in Damascus. Russia backing the regime. Smuggled weapons. Thousands dead.

Fitting a description as this may be for the current state of Syria, it is in fact the story of an older uprising. Between 1976 and 1982, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood led a Sunni resistance to Hafez Al-Assad's minority Alawite regime. He crushed this brutally, sending his brother to suppress the rebels in Hama, killing between 10,000 and 40,000 Syrians.

The similarities between the uprising of 30 years ago and today are apparent. More striking, though, is a central difference. The biggest change between the two events lies in the Western reaction. In 1982 there were simply no calls for intervention. It was not done.

Senator John McCain - the man who might have been US President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces - has consistently called for air strikes against Syrian armed forces. This is just one possible form of intervention justified by the 'responsibility to protect' Syrian civilians, as their government has clearly ceased to.

The desire to 'do something' rather than 'do nothing' is understandable. Peaceful, pro-democracy protests have been crushed. Rebel-held Homs was retaken after a long artillery assault. UN envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan has been discarded by the rebels after no compliance by the Syrian regime. In Houla, pro-regime 'Shabiha' paramilitary killed 108 people, many women and children. Images of the dead were transmitted across the world.

Hopeful realists also see strategic reasons for action. Syria holds together an arc of Shi'a opposition to the US and its Sunni allies stretching from Iran, through Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. If Assad could be removed, Iran would lose a key Arab ally and Hezbollah would be isolated. Unintended consequences, of course, notwithstanding.

Such widespread calls for intervention contrast with the aftermath of the Hama massacre in 1982. There was little international reaction. At the time The Guardian claimed that 'ruthless minority rule of this kind is an acceptable price to pay for a measure of stability.' The world had a 'well understood preoccupation with more pressing matters.' During the Cold War, regimes' dealings with their own subjects were incidental. More pressing were the Syrian occupation of neighbouring Lebanon and the new Islamic Republic in Iran.

What explains the current calls for intervention? During the Cold War, where every country in the world was either aligned or strategically important to the USA or USSR, power politics ruled. Since then, the victorious West of the US and allies has paid more attention to regimes' treatment of their own people.

Interventions generally and in the Middle East particularly have been numerous. The liberation of Kuwait in 1991 demonstrated to the world the US' military capacity and diplomatic freedom to destroy a military halfway round the world. It is the 'no-fly zones' put in place to stop Saddam Hussein massacring his own rebellious people that mark the start of military intervention to protect civilians.

Since then, Western troops acting to protect civilians has become normal. NATO has launched such operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and Libya. These recent successes would seem to teach us that a problem in the Middle East can be solved by Western military intervention. This is a lesson that some Syrians have internalized - carrying posters in English calling for UN and Western action. However, just as in 1982, useful intervention is impossible. We are just more surprised by this now than we were then.

There is no practical plan for intervention in Syria. In reply to McCain's call for air strikes - what should be bombed? Atrocities are increasingly being carried out not by easy-to-destroy tanks and artillery, but civilian-clothed thugs. Unlike in Libya, there are no clearly held rebel areas from which a conventional military advance could be launched. Other proponents for intervention talk about 'safe zones' for civilians along the border with Turkey. The 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in the UN 'safe zone' at Srebrenica demonstrates the difficulty of credibly defending such areas.

More important than practicalities is the impossibility of securing UN support for any intervention. In October, Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council Resolution on Syria calling for political transition. Russia, as Syria's major ally, blocks any meaningful diplomatic action. How Russia benefits from its Syrian ally is clear: use of the Mediterranean port Tartous, consistent trade relations and arms sales. It gains nothing from abandoning its ally. The death of tens of thousands of civilians during the Russian army's 1999 invasion of Chechnya demonstrates high tolerance for civilian casualties. President Putin will continue to support Assad as long as he seems - like his father did- to be winning. No proposed diplomatic solution will change this.

The debate on intervention in Syria displays the dissonance between how the world is, and how we would like it to be. In 1982, the diplomatic situation precluded even the idea of intervention. Today too, Russia's support for its only Middle Eastern ally precludes useful intervention. Yet, after 20 years of activity in the region, we cannot avoid the habit of wanting to 'do something'. The only action taken so far by the US, Saudi Arabia and Qatar has been to arm the rebels. This is not a solution: although it may stop them being defeated outright, it only serves to militarize an increasingly sectarian conflict which polarizes Syria and already spreads to neighbouring countries. A sad end to peaceful, pro-democracy protests. And one we can do nothing about.

The circumstances which stop intervention against a tragedy in Syria will repeat themselves. The two uprisings in Syria, 30 years apart, show how dependent humanitarian interventions are on the hard facts of US diplomatic and military hegemony. As the latter fades and shows itself a product of brief post-Cold war optimism, the prospects for the former dwindle too. We will have to get used to this feeling of impotence.