“And so it goes” in Syria

“And so it goes.”

The phrase, from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 anti-war classic, Slaughterhouse-Five, is a literary shrug; a way to dismiss death and destruction; a device for turning the page rather than confronting humanitarian horror.

Collectively, that’s where we are in Syria.

The region looks for U.S. leadership, but a war-weary, economically fragile America has turned inward, grudgingly anticipating a presidential election campaign that promises to be far more vicious than uplifting.

A turbulent Europe will provide little help, with its leaders shaken by recent French and Greek elections that raise questions about the continent’s collective approach to its economic and debt crises.

Hoping to avoid a more muscular response in Syria, the United States and its allies had sought refuge in the six-point plan of Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy, to stop the violence and start a political dialogue between the government and the rebels, but neither Annan nor the West can pretend any longer that it’s a viable path to success.

Syrian strongman, Bashar al-Assad, was supposed to withdraw his troops and heavy weapons from Syrian cities, allow for humanitarian aid, and provide for basic political freedoms, but he’s largely ignored the dictates.

Since the plan supposedly took effect in early April, at least 1,000 Syrians have been killed and thousands more displaced, according to Alon Ben-Meir, a senior fellow at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

“We may well conclude,” Annan now concedes, “that [the plan] doesn’t work and a different tack has to be taken.”

The White House agrees, with Press Secretary Jay Carney acknowledging, “If the regime’s intransigence continues, the international community is going to have to admit defeat… we will not deny that plan has not been succeeding thus far.”

But, if admitting failure is one thing, offering a more robust alternative to end the slaughter is quite another.

“I’m waiting,” Annan said, “for some suggestions as to what else we do.”

And so it goes.

Annan warned that Syria could well descend into civil war, while Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said it’s already reached that stage in some parts of the country.

Security forces killed dozens more people this week, according to news reports. They deployed rockets and machine guns in the village of al-Hassan in the central Homs province, conducted raids in the city of Douma, and shelled the town of Qalaat al-Madiq in the central province of Hama and Al-Tamanaa village in Idlib province.

After Annan briefed the Security Council on the situation, reaction broke along predictable lines. The United States and its allies blamed al-Assad, while Syrian allies Russia and China offered a sunnier outlook.

“Things are moving in a positive direction,” Russia’s ambassador, Vitaly I. Churkin, said. “Many obstacles, but I think they can be overcome.”

And so it goes.

Annan says Syria’s 23 million people have been “taken prisoner.”

The Red Cross says 1.5 million of them urgently need food, water, shelter, and sanitation. Tens of thousands have taken shelter in public buildings or other peoples’ homes, while 100,000 are said to be “particularly vulnerable.”

Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, says 23,000 Syrian refugees have reached his country.

And so it goes.

The UN has 60 “monitors” in the country, and their presence may be forcing the government to change its tactics a bit. But, 60 monitors in a country of 23 million people will hardly impede a ruthless ruler.

Rather than large-scale operations that draw lots of attention, the government is teaming more targeted operations of the kind described above with stepped-up arrests and torture.

Government forces reportedly rounded up hundreds of university students in Aleppo, while proAssad hit squads stabbed several suspected opposition figures to death. In Douma, snipers on rooftops fired on protestors.

“What can 50 observers do?” Erdogan asked on Tuesday. “We need perhaps 3,000 observers in a large mission.”

The UN had hoped to raise the total number of monitors to 300 by the end of May. But, its peacekeeping chief, Herve Ladsous, says the UN has commitments so far from governments only for 150 and, according to London’s Guardian, Ladsous admitted that he’ll likely have only 100 on the ground by the end of May.

And so it goes.

Western analysts are increasingly discarding their earlier predictions that al-Assad’s downfall is imminent, saying he could well survive at least into 2013.

And so it goes.

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