Three weeks ago, there was a glimmer of hope for the country. The UN security council endorsed a plan sponsored by former secretary general Kofi Annan, calling for a ceasefire, the removal of government forces from besieged towns, political dialogue and various humanitarian gestures. There were doubts from the outset, but much of the world jumped on board.
Today the deadline for implementation of the Annan plan expired to the beat of mortar fire and the roar of regime tank engines. Like the well-intentioned but meagre diplomatic efforts that came before it, the plan was never implemented by the Assad regime (or supported by the rebels): instead, it created a diplomat-approved window for violent suppression of dissent. As the clock ticked down on Monday night and Tuesday morning, the killing continued: in Mariah, Douma, Deraa, Hama, and Homs (where activists reported a dozen deaths on Tuesday morning). Little surprise that, as the deadline expired, Syria's foreign minister was visiting his patron's patrons in Moscow.
Beyond the desperation of the Syrian people (a new Human Rights Watch report details the regime's habit of executing civilians and rebels alike), the great fear with Syria has been the conflict's potential to ignite neighbouring countries. Destabilisation on a large scale has yet to happen, but on Monday a cameraman was killed on the Lebanese border, and Syrian forces fired into Turkey: a number of Syrians in a refugee camp by the border were reported wounded – perhaps as many as 23 – and there are unconfirmed reports of two deaths.
Turkey – which has an extremely complicated historic relationship with Syria – was not pleased. The country's powerful foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu cut short a trip to China to attend to the crisis. The US is busy gearing up for presidential elections and Europe is reluctant to engage militarily, leaving Turkey, the ascendant regional power, to deal with matters by itself. The question of how it decides to deal with disaster at its doorstep is even more important than in normal circumstances.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have already tipped their hands by calling for arming of the opposition. Whether that proposal – which it's believed is being put into action – gains traction globally remains to be seen. Certainly, the eagerness of transnational jihadists to join the fight is not a boost to armed civilians and defected soldiers fighting for a free country – in fact, the secular opposition is dead against intervention by religious fighters.
Amid the sadness...
It must not be forgotten that at its heart the Syrian revolution was launched by unarmed citizens in search of dignity and liberty. That story is sometimes lost in the uproar of diplomatic spin and daily brutality.
The story of Rima Dali – arrested in Damascus for carrying a banner reading: "Stop the killings. We want to build a nation for all Syrians" – shows that the peaceful struggle for freedom continues.