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As Syria's Assad pummels Homs, West reluctantly weighs military option

After diplomatic efforts at the UN failed Saturday, there is a growing consensus that supporting the rebel Free Syrian Army may be the only way to break the stalemate between Assad and his opponents.

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Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, met with Mr. Assad in Damascus Feb. 7, and said afterwards that the Syrian president was “fully committed” to ending the bloodshed and was ready for dialogue with the opposition. But such assurances are unlikely to persuade the Syrian opposition and the West, particularly given the Syrian Army’s ongoing offensive against the city of Homs which reportedly has killed more than 300 people since Friday.

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Still, there is little international appetite to replicate last year's NATO mission in Libya, which helped topple Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton said on Sunday that a direct military intervention had been “absolutely ruled out.”

A Western intervention in Syria – even if limited to setting up no-fly zones or havens – poses far greater challenges than in Libya.

Syria’s population density is almost 30 times greater than that of Libya, mainly packed into a handful of cities, which increases the risk of civilian casualties. The Syrian Army is five times larger than the former Libyan army under the late Muammar Qaddafi and much better equipped. Although most of Syria’s anti-aircraft missile systems are aging or obsolete, its air defense network is sufficiently large to pose a challenge to Western aircraft seeking to destroy them prior to policing a no-fly zone. The recent transfer to Syria of advanced Russian anti-ship missiles would represent a grave threat to an amphibious taskforce off the Syrian coast.

“The Syrians will almost certainly resist any intrusion into their sovereignty, so to execute either a NFZ [no-fly zone] or safe haven would mean a fairly extensive air war to reduce Syrian air defenses,” Exum says. “We should also note that any such air operations would take place in some of the most militarily and politically sensitive air space on Earth.”

Syria indeed sits at the nexus of several volatile geopolitical fault lines in the Middle East. They include the conflict with Israel, Syria’s staunch alliance with Iran, Turkey's struggle with ethnic Kurds, Iraq, and Lebanon – over which Syria exerts influence and where it backs the powerful militant Shiite Hezbollah.

“Syria is already an arena for proxy competition between Saudi Arabia and its allies and [rival] Iran and its allies,” says Aram Nerguizian, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and author of a report published in December on the risks of military intervention in Syria. “Anything that would involve direct Western intervention would be deeply destabilizing at the regional level.”

Divisions arise between rebel commanders

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