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Image Credit: Guillermo F. Munro/©Gulf News

The Arab League's statement on Syria, issued Sunday, ended with a warning. The League's charter, it said, rejects foreign intervention in the affairs of Arab countries.

It would be interesting to know whether this boilerplate anti-imperialist language was designed mainly to camouflage the League's own powerlessness. Or do some officials at League headquarters really believe that the Americans, Nato or the European Union plan to intervene to support Syria's broadening popular uprising?

Surely it should be obvious, four months into Nato's Libya adventure, that it will be a long time before the alliance, or anyone else, rushes to the aid of besieged civilians in another Middle East civil war.

Indeed, Syria is the thing that many have predicted — some eagerly, others with fear — for two decades: a challenge which America, as the world's only superpower, is expected somehow to address, but cannot. A crisis that cries out for Washington and the broader international community to do something — but over which it, and they, have virtually no influence.

The sense of helplessness and frustration while watching events in Syria unfold is palpable. When former president Hafez Al Assad crushed an Islamist uprising in Hama nearly 30 years ago it took days for the world to even realise that something was going on and weeks before outsiders really grasped the scale of the massacre.

It is ironic that President Bashar Al Assad, the one time head of the Syrian Computer Society, finds his efforts to stifle this latest uprising made immeasurably more difficult by the information technology he once sought to promote.

Stark contrast

That same technology also, however, makes the Syrian revolt of 2011 a far more difficult political and policy issue for President Barack Obama than the Hama uprising of 1982 ever was for Ronald Reagan.

The present revolt has an immediacy that its predecessor did not. Videos are posted on YouTube every day. Even now residents of the besieged cities are able to get out the occasional phone call. This makes the violence harder for the outside world to ignore. It does not, however, make it easier to confront in any substantive way.

If Egypt presented Washington with difficult choices, Syria offers the Americans — and the wider international community — no choices at all. There are, as the American political writer Josh Marshall succinctly put it, simply no levers to pull.

Criticism of the Obama administration during the Egyptian uprising centred on moves it was slow to make. But how do you handle the brutal suppression of a popular uprising in a country where America has had little or no influence for decades?

Syria is not North Korea (or even Libya), but, viewed objectively, it is a remarkably isolated place both politically and economically. Almost as ironic as Al Assad's promotion of the internet technology that is now causing him so many headaches is the fact that, in a perverse way, Syria's decades of isolation may now work in his favour.

Little effect

America has had sanctions in place against Syria for years. New measures are likely to have little effect above and beyond what is already in place. The Europeans have, mostly, refused to go along with those sanctions but that does not mean that they actually do a lot of business with Damascus, relatively speaking.

Turkey has some political and economic influence, and seems eager to use it as part of its ongoing bid to establish itself as a significant regional power. But with Syria's ruling clique clearly (and, perhaps not inaccurately) convinced they are fighting for their lives that influence will only take Ankara so far.

The one government that probably has some real economic and political leverage with the Al Assad clan is Iran. A cynic might ask what we should infer from the fact that for three decades Iran has been the closest ally of the self-styled "Beating Heart of Arabism," but the situation is what it is.

Tehran, of course, has some experience of its own with popular uprisings calling for democracy. Under the circumstances it is hard to see it doing anything other than holding the line in support of its longtime ally.

Behind this powerlessness is a simple reality: no foreign army is going to intervene militarily in Syria. Everyone knows this, starting with the Al Assad regime itself. As a result, the pictures from Hama, Homs, Daraa and other cities are tough to watch. Yet watch is all any of us, from Obama on down, are ever likely to do.

 

Gordon Robison teaches political science at the University of Vermont.