Bashar Assad looked a beaten man in the interview he gave a few days ago. When he said that his responsibility as president was to fight the “terrorists” you could see from his expression that he knew how false and feeble he sounded. At the outset early last year, he could have maneuvered to keep power through skillful compromise, on the lines of the Army Council now ruling Egypt. Deliberately limiting his options, he made sure to engage in a test of strength. That is consistent with the culture, witness how Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddhafi and many another Arab ruler had done the very same. And it is why the notion going round that the Arabs are progressing towards democracy is wishful thinking. To be interpreting events according to Western culture is to be condescending and wrong.
In the last few days at least 1,000 Syrians have been killed. It is all too likely that the total figure of 15,000 dead is too low by a factor of three and even four. Blood-letting and savagery on this scale makes it impossible for Bashar to revert to being the head of state that he was. By now, his sole available option is more force. Sure enough, helicopter gunships are flying over Damascus and other towns. The shooting down of a Turkish jet follows the strict logic of a ruler who has engaged in a trial of strength. Another Turkish jet coming close, or Turkish tanks crossing the border, would up the level of violence. If it so chooses, Turkey can exercise the option to wage war.
In this pass, the West has no idea what to do. Geneva is a city prone to stage treachery and delusion, but even so it is hard to credit that Hillary Clinton would allow herself at the start of the meeting there about Syria to appear on television giggling and shaking hands with the odious Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister and prime accomplice in murder. Unchecked, Bashar’s test of strength will go to extremes and end in catastrophe. This is a moment when the whole Western order is proving its irrelevance.