In recent days the world has witnessed the Assad regime in Syria pretending to inquire as to its citizens’ opinion in a referendum on constitutional reform, while enthusiastically slaughtering the opposition with advanced artillery.
About 100 civilians were shot or blown up by the security forces in the 48-hour period during which the vote was conducted.
This simultaneous referendum and bloodbath was a uniquely Assad-type production. It combined the clunky, very 20th-century and transparent propaganda methods of the regime with the relentless willingness for savage violence against opponents that has characterised the Assad family dictatorship throughout its existence.
These methods may appear old-fashioned. President Bashar al-Assad is determined to prove his government is sufficiently strong to hold back the wave of change that began last year with the Arab Spring uprisings.
A united and anti-Western international coalition stands behind Assad. The rebels, as I saw on a recent trip into northern Syria, are determined and brave, but under-equipped, badly organised and lacking real external help.
Which means that unless the West sharply changes its approach to the crisis in Syria, Assad may well succeed and survive.
However, no change in the Western approach looks to be on the horizon.
The pro-Assad international coalition consists of Russia, China, Iran and Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon. The actions of its components in supporting the Syrian regime effectively complement one another.
Russia and China have succeeded in preventing any meaningful diplomatic response to the Syrian crisis through the exercise of their veto power in the UN Security Council.
State-of-the-art Russian weaponry is being employed against the Syrian rebels; T-72 tanks, the M240 mortar system, all have been used in recent days in the brutal suppression of the rebel forces in Homs.
Meanwhile, the Syrian army has been shelling the rebel strongholds of Idleb city, Binnish and Sarmin.
More weaponry is arriving by sea. Russian and Iranian ships, laden with weapons, have docked at Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartous. Iranian and Hezbollah personnel are in Syria on the ground, and have been there since the start of the uprising.
Two weeks ago I interviewed an officer of the rebel Free Syrian Army in the town of Sarmin, in Idleb province. He told me of non-Arabic speaking advisers who accompanied his airborne unit into Deraa in the first weeks of the uprising.
He described the execution of one of his brother officers who refused to fire on the crowds of demonstrators. It was this that made him end his seven-year career as an officer in the Syrian paratroops and go over to the rebels.
In Binnish, I spoke to a young civilian opposition activist who described the entry of the army and paramilitaries in force, accompanied by men with Lebanese accents. The latter were Hezbollah men, he said.
These witness accounts of Iranian and Hezbollah involvement are amply confirmed by official but insufficiently publicised reports. Iran, well versed in the practice of internal repression, has been happy to share its knowledge with its Syrian allies.
For example, the US Treasury Department last year imposed sanctions against Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and the senior Quds Force officer in charge of operations and training, Mohsen Chizari, citing their involvement in the repression of the Syrian uprising.
The US sanctions list described the Quds Force as a “conduit for providing material support to the GID”, the Syrian intelligence service.
So it is not in doubt that a determined, focused coalition is doing all it can to ensure that Assad survives. From his point of view, this coalition is testimony to the wisdom of his decision not to be tempted away from the pro-Iranian regional bloc by the inducements offered to him by current and previous US administrations to get him to switch sides.
The Iran-led regional bloc has a keen understanding of power politics and its obligations. Unfortunately for the Syrian rebels, the West has no such clarity of vision.
The US administration wants above all to avoid getting entangled into another Middle Eastern conflict. Such a desire is entirely understandable, but its consequences are likely to be disastrous for Western interests.
Western and US hesitancy was on full display at the “Friends of Syria” gathering in Tunisia recently. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued various excuses as to why no real assistance would be made available to the rebels: they are supported by Hamas and al-Qa’ida, they failed to help their beleaguered comrades in Homs, and so on.
The Syrian rebels are indeed supported by Sunni Islamist elements. Some of them (although not all, or even a majority) are radical Sunni Islamists themselves, as I saw when I was there. They are also a divided force, unable to achieve Syria-wide mobilisation in any kind of unison.
But to achieve unity, and indeed to avoid Sunni Islamist domination, the rebels urgently need more help from the West. If this is not forthcoming, as was made clear in Tunisia, the Saudis and the Qataris will move to extend their assistance. In that eventuality, it is likely Syria’s armed opposition forces will indeed become dominated by the Sunni jihadists.
If this happens, the available outcomes for the West will then all be disastrous: victory for the Assad regime, and therefore the Iran-led regional bloc, victory for the Sunni Islamists; or a prolonged and bloody sectarian civil war.
To avoid this, what is needed is a clear program of support for the Syrian rebels from the West, led by the US, bypassing the UN. This would include the establishment of safe zones in Syria, guaranteed by Western air power, and the provision of arms and military expertise to the rebels.
It is highly unlikely any of this will happen.
The current leadership of the West doesn’t think in terms of power politics. Regarding Syria, it thinks in terms of avoiding trouble. In which case, Assad, Iran and Russia will win, or the victors will be the Sunni jihadists.
In which case, either way, the losers will be the people of Syria, and of course the West and its remaining Middle Eastern allies.
This article was also printed in The Australian.