The death spiral continues in Syria. For more than a year, the benighted Arab state has been gripped by savagery as the authoritarian regime of President Bashar al-Assad is challenged by insurrectionists.
The ruthlessness of both sides has resulted in a mounting catalogue of atrocities, leaving the Syrian people with the deepening fear that their country is sliding into civil war.
Such anxieties can only have been worsened by reports of the massacre in the town of Houla, where more than 100 civilians were said to have been butchered last week by the President’s forces.
Among the dead were no fewer than 49 children and 34 women.
On Sunday, the UN Security Council — meeting in an emergency session — issued another fierce condemnation of Assad and repeated calls for a ceasefire between the government and the rebels.
Here in Britain, Foreign Secretary William Hague has not only attacked Assad in the strongest possible terms, but has also demanded international pressure to bring about his downfall. Yesterday, Britain — and other Western powers — announced the expulsion of their Syrian diplomats.
Even military intervention by the West against Assad has not been ruled out.
In the U.S., General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has indicated that American troops could be sent to support the rebels. ‘There is always a military option,’ he said. Hague himself has indulged in some noisy sabre-rattling over the past few days.
The expressions of outrage over Houla and the consequent threats of military action all feed into the conventional Western narrative of the Syrian crisis whereby Assad is portrayed as a bloodthirsty tyrant and the rebels as heroic freedom-fighters trying to liberate the Syrian people from oppression.
It is a picture that has been sedulously cultivated by the anti-Assad opposition, who are masters of manipulative propaganda aimed at gullible Western politicians, broadcasters and protest groups.
But the truth about the violence in Syria is far more complex than Assad’s enemies would have us believe.
Of course, this murderous bloodshed must be condemned, and there is no doubt that a human tragedy is unfolding. The Assad regime is clearly repulsive and its actions indefensible, so a genuinely popular and peaceful uprising by the people would be both understandable and justified.
However, contrary to what Hague might argue, this is anything but a straightforward battle between a dictatorship and the people.
While the uprising began as a series of peaceful demonstrations by ordinary Syrians, the simplistic notion of good versus evil no longer reflects the reality.
Even on the most basic level, we do not know what actually happened at Houla. ‘Truth is the first casualty of war,’ goes the wise old dictum, and all we have at the moment are the contentions of either side.
The rebels are blaming Assad, while the President’s regime strongly disputes any responsibility for the killings at all, pointing out that most of the victims seem to have been shot at point-blank range, whereas the Government forces at the time were using heavy mortar fire against the rebels.
Self-serving propaganda? Perhaps, but in this most bitter of conflicts, tales of atrocities have often been exaggerated and exploited.
Only in February, for instance, just before a key UN vote on Syrian sanctions, we were told that more than 200 civilians were killed by Assad’s forces in the bloody shelling of Homs, a rebel stronghold.
But it subsequently turned out that the real death toll was 55.
Moreover, it should be recognised that the rebels stand accused of barbarity matching that of the Assad regime.
Over recent months, they have been accused of a string of vicious terrorist attacks in major cities, including car explosions and suicide bombings. In turn, they claim these were the work of Assad. But how are we to know the truth?
Such a murky picture of mutually murderous violence makes it absurd for Hague to pretend that this is merely a moral struggle between the darkness of the Assad regime and the nobility of his opponents.
The fact is that there is no uprising of the Syrian people against the government. Nor have there been any major protests against Assad’s presidency in the country’s two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, where the only mass demonstrations to have been held at all have been pro-Assad.
Some try to explain the absence of mass rallies by claiming that the tyrannical nature of the government prevents them, but this will not wash. In Egypt, the police, army and security forces under President Mubarak were far stronger than those under Assad in Syria today, yet they still could not prevent huge popular protests.
There has been nothing like that in Syria, for the reality is that the opposition does not represent the will of the people. Instead, it is a largely Islamist force that wants to end Assad’s attachment to secular rule, under which — for all the regime’s other failings — the rights of religious minorities are respected.
The opposition’s co-ordinating body, the Syrian National Council, is dominated by the hardline Muslim Brotherhood, which supports the imposition of Sharia law. The council is strongly supported by armed jihadists on the ground who want to create an anti-Western Islamic state in Syria.
These zealots have been provided with both arms and financial backing by the fundamentalist Muslim regimes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as both want to promote ultra-conservative Islamism across the region.
It is grotesque that our own Foreign Secretary thinks that we have a duty to take up the cause of these fanatics in Syria who have no interest in negotiation or democracy.
Hague is quite simply deluded if he thinks that we have anything to gain from intervention in the country.
Britain’s position is shot through with hypocrisy. Hague fulminates about human rights in Syria because the issue is dominating international news, yet says nothing about abuses of freedom in Saudi Arabia, just because the country happens to be our oil-rich economic ally.
He criticises Russia for backing Assad, yet remains silent about Qatar’s backing for the murderous jihadists.
Nor do our politicians seem to have learnt any lessons from the so-called Arab Spring, which they enthusiastically presented last year as a triumph of freedom over dictatorship. It has hardly worked out like that.
In almost every country where the Arab Spring prevailed, the result has been more oppression, greater economic paralysis and an increase in religious autocracy.
So in Tunisia, once the most secular and progressive country in the Arab world, gangs of Salafist Muslim thugs now roam the streets, threatening unveiled women and firebombing shops that dare to sell alcohol. In Yemen, Al Qaeda now controls large tracts of the south of country, while in Egypt, the first round of the presidential election has resulted in a run‑off between an Islamist hardliner and a former military crony of Mubarak — hardly the victory for democracy that the Egyptian people were promised at the height of the revolution.
All this partly explains why the Syrian people have largely refused to support the rebels. They see what has happened in the rest of the Middle East and shudder.
Assad may have the blood of children on his hands, but in the eyes of the majority of his people he at least offers a degree of stability and economic progress, whereas the prospect of jihadist rule means puritanism and paralysis.
It would be outrageous to sacrifice the lives of any British soldiers in this conflict in which we have no national interests.
Enough lives have already been lost in ideological adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the cost of both those wars would pale beside the terrible consequences of intervention in Syria, up against a fiercely loyal, well-trained and well-equipped army.
Even if our forces succeeded in driving Assad from power, we would be dragged further into a blood-soaked quagmire as we tried to negotiate a settlement between the warring factions.
Our intervention in Libya may have deposed a tyrant — but only at the cost of giving power to lethal Islamic militias and further degrading the infrastructure of that nation. The damage we would cause in Syria would be even greater.
In any case, at a time of severe military cutbacks, we simply do not have the capability to intervene — so Hague’s aggressive rhetoric is little more than mere posturing anyway.