By Tim Lister, CNN
Amid growing outrage over civilian casualties in Syria, there are ever more urgent calls to aid — or at least protect — the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. But so far, the international community's response has been limited.
There has been diplomatic censure, with envoys withdrawn or "recalled for consultations." Syrian diplomats have been expelled from numerous countries, including much of the European Union, Turkey, the United States and several Arab states.
A growing raft of sanctions is draining the Syrian regime's coffers but only gradually sapping its strength. This is not a country that has relied on international trade for its survival.
A United Nations mission was formed to monitor a cease-fire agreement made in April, but violence has persisted.
Nothing has made the al-Assad regime buckle, especially as the regime perceives both internal opposition and the international community as divided.
Compare the situation to that in Libya last year. As Moammar Gadhafi was about to unleash his forces on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, the world came together in the shape of the U.N. Security Council to authorize international intervention and prevent a bloodbath.
The French and British were prime movers behind U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973; the United States an enthusiastic supporter. Russia abstained, but at the time its ambassador noted that many questions remained "unanswered, including how it would be enforced and by whom, and what the limits of engagement would be." Russia later complained that a humanitarian mandate had become a blank check in support of the rebels.
Perhaps in part because of the bad blood over Libya, the world body has reached no similar consensus over Syria. Rather, the opposite, with some of the harshest diplomatic language traded for years.
Both Russia and China are wary of any international action supporting protest against authoritarian rule. And Syria has been first the Soviet Union's — and now Russia's — key ally in the region after Egypt “defected” in the 1970s. As it has for decades, Russia still supplies the Syrian government with weapons. One Russian analyst, Ruslan Pukhov, told CNN: "Once the Assad regime vanishes, we have zero influence in the region."
It remains to be seen whether the recent massacre in Houla will force Russia into a corner. But even if it does, what can be done? In Bosnia, the international community declared "safe havens" for Muslims but failed to protect them. The result in July 1995 was Srebrenica, the worst massacre in Europe since 1945, when some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians were killed by Serb forces. Havens are only safe when protected against superior forces.
Analysts say that even setting aside the lack of international will, successful intervention in Syria would pose problems not present in Libya:
Geography: Most regime targets in Libya were close to the Mediterranean coast and within easy reach of NATO air bases in Italy. Even so, NATO warplanes flew some 21,000 missions over nearly six months to enforce the no-fly zone, suppress air defenses and destroy command centers and armor. Military analysts say that, while no match for the best NATO members could summon, Syrian armed forces are better equipped and coordinated than anything Gadhafi could muster.
Neighboring states: Few of Syria's neighbors would likely allow their territory to be used to pre-position supplies or military units. Certainly neither Iraq nor Lebanon, both countries with their own volatile sectarian mixes. The Hezbollah militia, strongly allied with Syria, remains powerful within Lebanon.
The presence of foreign troops on Jordanian soil might have repercussions for a monarchy that already has plenty of problems domestically. Using Israeli territory would send the wrong message altogether.
That leaves Turkey, a NATO member that has run out of patience with al-Assad. Earlier this year, the Turkish foreign minister compared the Syrian president with former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned al-Assad — pointedly in Arabic — "What goes around, comes around."
Turkey has military bases (Incirlik, Diyarbakir) close to the border that, theoretically, could serve as staging posts for intervention. But even for the Turks, there would be risks, including a flood of refugees and possible retaliation by Damascus supporting the Kurdish terrorist group active in Turkey, the PKK.
Topography: Libya was flat desert; there was little cover for regime forces and most of the fighting was along a narrow coastal strip. "Target acquisition" was relatively simple. Syria's physical geography is more challenging; and much of its northern border with Turkey and Lebanon is mountainous, with few major roads. Getting aid into any safe havens within Syria would be a logistical nightmare.
The opposition: The Libyan rebels, for all their military shortcomings, quickly grabbed a swathe of eastern Libya and major air and seaports in Benghazi and Tobruk that became their resupply hubs. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) controls a few neighborhoods and some rural areas in the north of the country — but no major population center. It is vastly outgunned by the Syrian army.
Crucially, the regime retains control of Syria's frontiers, and its armed forces appear cohesive, according to analysts in the region. There have been military defections, mainly of low-rank conscripts, but not of entire units with their armor.
Against all this and the political risks of western military action in yet another Muslim country, some argue there is a moral imperative — as there was in Libya and Kosovo (done), Rwanda (ignored) and Bosnia (eventually).
Writing in The Atlantic earlier this year, Steven Cook argued that "if there is no intervention and political will to stop Assad's crimes remains absent, the world will once again have to answer for standing on the sidelines of a mass murder."
Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, asked: "At what point in the body count is international intervention deemed to be an acceptably worthwhile option that can have a positive effect on the situation? After Assad has killed 6,000 people? 7,000? 10,000? 20,000?"
By most accounts, we have passed the second of those benchmarks.
Some argue that, despite the price, there would also eventually be a strategic gain: a post-al-Assad Syria would unlikely be as close to Iran as is the current regime and might also deprive Hezbollah of critical regional support.
Others see the risks of international intervention as outweighing any benefits, with the danger that civil war would inevitably spill into Lebanon.
A version of this analysis first appeared in February.