x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

After massacre, 'Yemen option' may be too late

Kofi Annan's plan for a Syria ceasefire is a failure that has only served to give the Assad regime a shred of the legitimacy it has forfeited repeatedly.

On the long list of crimes the regime of Bashar Al Assad has committed against Syrians, the massacre of 92 people in Hula, outside Homs, may be viewed as one of the worst.

The UN observer mission has this week confirmed finding the bodies, some bearing signs of having been killed by tank shells. Among them were 32 children under the age of 10. Some of the victims, footage released by the rebels indicates, appear to have been mutilated and killed by knives. The Syrian people's response will not be long in coming: retaliatory attacks can be expected, and in the big cities the regime will lose more support.

The world reaction, however, is still just words. Kofi Annan's plan for a ceasefire and UN observers to create the conditions for peace is a failure that has only served to give the regime a shred of the legitimacy it has forfeited repeatedly. The Free Syrian Army says it can no longer respect the ceasefire, since the Assad regime has ignored it from the start.

But what can come next, in what appears to be a military stalemate?

News reports suggest that US President Barack Obama has discussed a "Yemen-style" solution with the Russian prime minister.

Details have not been revealed, and may not even have been fleshed out - but this would probably involve Mr Al Assad and his immediate family stepping down in an orderly fashion, avoiding the sort of chaos seen in Libya, with power moving to other elements of the existing regime. That is, at least, more or less what was supposed to happen in Yemen.

This seems at first glance to offer a way out of the impasse. The international community balks at direct intervention, both for fear of their own casualties and since any wider conflict there could easily spill into neighbouring states - as indeed has happened, to a degree, in Lebanon.

At the same time, an orderly transition that maintains elements of the current regime would placate Russia, Syria's outside ally. The Russians maintain a naval base at Tartous and have extensive economic ties in Syria, and have bluntly opposed a wholesale sweeping away of the regime.

The "Yemen option" is seen in some circles, then, as a way forward that avoids full-scale military intervention, but promises some change.

The problem is, who will buy it inside Syria? After such horrors as the Hula massacre - and the thousands of other families affected by deaths and injuries in the past year - it is far from clear that Syrians will tolerate any enduring remnant of Mr Assad's brutal regime.