LONDON, United Kingdom — Here's as clear a statement of realpolitik as you are ever likely to hear. The subject is Syria. The speaker is British Foreign Secretary William Hague: "We’re not entirely powerless, but we are constrained by the need for international support for anything that we do."
That's an admission of impotence for which there is no Viagra.
Hague, speaking to Britain's Sky News over the weekend, went on to say, "We’ve already put EU sanctions on 23 individuals including President Assad himself [preventing them from traveling to Europe] and the main thing we’re trying to do at the moment is to get a resolution from the United Nations Security Council. That is much more difficult than in the case of Libya."
Hague pointed the finger at Russia as being more likely to veto a U.N. resolution imposing sanctions because of its close relationship with the Syrian government. He noted that tough U.N. action on Libya was possible in part because the Russian government is not as close to the Gaddafi regime.
Whatever. Hague's comments make clear to Syrians trying to rid themselves of President Bashar al-Assad's regime that, so far as Europe is concerned, they are on their own.
There are many reasons why Britain and France are sitting out this chapter of the Arab uprisings. Foremost is "austerity." Europe's main nations with genuine military capability have reached their limits for intervention. That's the candid admission of one of Britain's top military men. Britain is out of "capacity," in the words of Adm. Sir Mark Stanhope, First Sea Lord, the country's top naval officer. His words carry extra weight because the Navy, the "Senior Service," is first among equals in the British defense establishment.
Speaking Monday, Stanhope said that budget cuts imposed last year by the Conservative-led coalition had made the job in Libya more difficult. To save money, the Royal Navy's flagship, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, has been mothballed and Britain's sea-borne Harrier jump jets taken out of service. Stanhope noted that if this had not happened the Ark Royal and its squadron of Harriers would have been in action off the coast of Libya back in February. Instead Britain has been launching its air missions from an air base in Italy.
"The pros would have been a much more reactive force," Stanhope told reporters. "We would deploy within 20 minutes as opposed to an hour and a half, so obviously there are some advantages there. It's cheaper to fly an aircraft from an aircraft carrier than from the shore."
Other reasons for avoiding an intervention in Syria similar to what is happening in Libya have been well-aired: Syria's strategic position adjacent to Israel, the Assad regime's willingness to destabilize the region through its influence in Lebanon and its closeness to Iran.
In the vacuum left by Western Europe, a resurgent Turkey seems willing to do the heavy lifting. Europe's political leaders seem willing to let Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, fresh from a major electoral triumph, take the lead in dealing with the intransigent neighbor on his southern border.
And there is another reason why more forceful intervention is not being advocated in Europe. That is the power of the ruling Baath party in Syria. Baathism is a weird political philosophy, but in practice it is a brutally effective way of governing as its history in the two countries where it took root — Iraq and Syria — make clear. At its core is a cult-like belief in the "leader" and the development of a party apparatus that is present in every aspect of daily life. Order is maintained not just through fearsome repression but through mass party membership.
Mustafa Karkouti, a Gulf-based Arab journalist, explains: "You always needed to join the Baath in order to better your life." The Baath, run by the Assad family since the 1960s, gets a hold of members young. "Syrian youth from school age were encouraged to join a loyal scout organization, devoted to the beloved leader, Hafez Al Assad, called Revolution Youth." This helped them get into college. "An aspiring student and a member in this organization would be automatically granted a quarter of the total qualifying marks to be accepted at a university," Karkouti said.
This policy tied Syria's diverse communities into the party apparatus. Dismantling the Baath, when it has tentacles in so many places, is not easy, even after the party leadership reaches a stage of terminal corruption and decline. Long after the Saddam Hussein-led Iraqi Baath party had ruined the country, America still had to invade Iraq to eliminate Baathism.
Karkouti's view is that the Syrian Baath Party is in a much stronger position than the Iraqi Baath Party at the time of the American invasion. "What keeps the regime comprehensively together is three things: the army, the various security apparatuses and the solid alliance that Hafez Al Assad, the father, has managed to build over the last four decades with the country's centers of economic power in major cities, such as the capital and second largest city, Aleppo. This partnership with Syria's petit bourgeoisie is the corner stone of Hafez Al Assad's success building the Baath."
So the fighting continues and Europe watches, but for how long? Diplomatic sources in London say three things are regarded as game changers that might rouse Europe to a more active response:
1. The opposition becomes a united as opposed to fragmented. The uprisings have been isolated from one another. European governments are looking for signs that rebels in Deraa are linking up with those in Latakia and the villages in the north, and that a joint leadership is coming together.
2. Serious uprisings in Aleppo and Damascus, cities that count their populations in the millions, and, as Karkouti points out, are home to the business communities that have thrived under Baath rule.
3. Syria's Kurds — 10 percent of the population — become more active participants in the uprising. As reported in GlobalPost last week, this minority could play a decisivie role in tipping the balance. Iraq's Kurds were key internal allies in America's overthrow of Saddam Hussein. With Turkey's Kurds being brought into that nation's mainstream, the Kurds can bring their own transnational influence to bear on events.
But until these things happen, Syrians looking for help in overthrowing the regime are going to have to make do with rhetoric like this from Foreign Secretary William Hague: "I do believe it is time for the Security Council to make a clear statement of the kind that we’re advocating, calling on the Syrian Government to respond to legitimate grievances, to release prisoners of conscience, to open up access to the internet and to cooperate with the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights."
I'm sure Assad and the Baath regime are considering those very points right now.