It’s fair to say that the Arab League observer mission to Syria started with low expectations. The fact that president Bashar al-Assad equivocated so long before agreeing to accept it was a bad omen, and despite the events of the last year the majority of Arab regimes are still no friends to democracy and human rights. The head of the mission, a Sudanese general, is himself a suspect for war crimes.

Expectations have certainly been borne out. Not only has the killing in Syria not been halted, its pace seems to have actually increased since the observers started their work. The United Nations now estimates a total civilian death toll of more than 5000, more than 400 of them in the past three weeks. Yesterday’s casualties included a French television reporter, Gilles Jacquier, the first foreign journalist to die in the violence.

Nor is there any sign that Assad recognises any need to change course.

Although he continues to deplore violence and promise reform, his public appearances this week have displayed every sign of what David Blair calls “dictator delusion syndrome” — the unrest is all the work of foreigners, traitors and terrorists.

From the Arab League’s point of view, this is a disaster. It desperately wanted to show that it could solve regional problems itself, without foreign intervention; the more ruthless Assad becomes, the worse it looks. But a victorious Syrian revolution would be almost as bad, adding to pressure against the region’s remaining autocrats — especially in Saudi Arabia, the driving force behind the Syrian peace plan.

What the Saudis want is for Assad to go peacefully, but that now looks more remote than ever. A slow but steady stream of defections from the Syrian army is edging the country ever closer to all-out civil war.

Anwar Malek, who resigned from the observer mission in disgust, told Al Jazeera that Assad’s regime was not dealing with the League in good faith: “In fact they were trying to deceive us and steer us away from what was really happening, towards insignificant things.” He said that instead of being hampered by the mission it “has gained a lot of time that has helped it implement its plan”.

But that raises the question of just what Assad’s plan is. If he is really as deluded as he seems, he may believe that once the foreign infiltrators have been weeded out, Syria can go back to being peaceful and contented. But even in isolation this would be wildly improbable; with the glare of international attention and the inspiration provided by the other Arab revolts, it is completely out of the question.

The one big thing that the Arab League mission has provided is publicity. News media have short attention spans, and a month or two ago there was a risk that much of the world would just forget about Syria.

That now looks unlikely; the killing is happening in plain view, and pressure will only mount for someone, somehow, to do something about it.

Whether anything can be done is related to the question of why Assad, unlike Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi, has been able to withstand domestic opposition and international condemnation for so long. If the answer is just that he’s more crafty and more ruthless than they were, then the chances of ousting him without even greater bloodshed seem remote.

But if, as I suspect, the answer is that Assad has had more genuine support among influential sections of his country’s population, then things are not so hopeless. As international sanctions start to bite, and as the regime’s reformist veneer becomes more and more transparent, that support may dwindle to the point where either Assad or those in his inner circle (not to mention his few remaining allies) see the writing on the wall.

If Western assistance can speed that process then it certainly should be given, but it’s unlikely that there’s much we can do — Turkey, Russia and of course the Arab League itself are much better placed. And while it is distressing to watch people being killed, the example of Iraq is there to remind us that untimely intervention can lead to blood and chaos on a vastly greater scale.

Peter Fray

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