World leaders struggling to force Syria's president from power will gather in Tunisia today armed with fresh evidence that his regime ordered crimes against humanity, including the killing of children, but calls for military intervention remain firmly off the agenda.
Despite a growing body of evidence that President Bashar al-Assad is personally culpable for the atrocities inflicted upon his own people -- the rationale for military intervention in Libya -- William Hague, Britain's Foreign Secretary, said yesterday a repeat of the NATO action that helped topple Muammar Gaddafi was unlikely.
His comments come amid rising concern that the splintered, disunited opposition may be infiltrated by extremist Sunni and al-Qa'ida fighters. American officials are also concerned that Mr Assad is sitting on a cache of chemical weapons that could wind up in extremists' hands if his regime fell.
"We are operating under many more constraints than we were in the case of Libya," Mr Hague said. "Syria sits next to Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq -- what happens in Syria has an effect on all of those countries and the consequences of any outside intervention are much more difficult to foresee."
Instead, he said, world leaders including the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and leaders from the Arab League meeting under the Friends of Syria banner in Tunis today would focus on "tightening a diplomatic and economic stranglehold" on the regime.
The apparent futility of this diplomatic approach, however, is frustrating the opposition. Despite repeated rounds of strong words and sanctions since the uprising in March last year, Mr Assad shows no sign of stopping his fierce assault.
Up to 7,000 people are believed to have died. The 'Sunday Times' reporter, Marie Colvin, was among 30 civilians reported dead on Wednesday during the apparently indiscriminate bombing of the opposition stronghold of Homs.
A new UN report on Syrian atrocities made public yesterday said that 500 children had been killed in the violence. The panel of UN human rights experts has also compiled a list of Syrian officials who could face investigation for crimes against humanity, which will be passed to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Any move to refer Syrian officials to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, however, would be likely to face opposition from Russia and China, who on February 4 vetoed a UN resolution calling on Mr Assad to step aside.
Voices calling for military intervention are more muted than they were when Col Gaddafi rained artillery down on his own people.
So far, just a small fraction of the many armed and unarmed opposition groups has openly called for intervention, and many military analysts believe it would be disastrous.
"The great risk is that the situation in Syria resembles that in Iraq and the entire government authority disintegrates," said Shashank Joshi, of the Royal United Services Institute. "You are already seeing international actors start to enter Syria from Iraq and other places, with links to al-Qa'ida." (©Independent News Service)