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Syria: Why international action remains unlikely even as death toll rises

The Arab League asked the United Nations Security Council to send forces to Syria today to stop the bloodshed there. But international military action against Bashar al-Assad's regime remains unlikely.

By Staff writer, Correspondent / February 12, 2012

Mourners carry the coffins of residents killed in bomb blasts on Friday in Aleppo, Syria.

George Orfalian/Reuters

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Boston; and Beirut, Lebanon

At dawn on March 19, 2011, artillery rained down on the Libyan rebel capital of Benghazi. Col. Muammar Qaddafi appeared poised to make good on his threats to exterminate the "rats" seeking his ouster. Thousands of families fled.

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Then French warplanes sprang into action, soon to be joined by US, British, and other NATO forces. Qaddafi's armored column was reduced to scrap metal, paving the way for his eventual overthrow.

Now, a similar scenario is taking place in Syrian cities like Homs, where withering artillery barrages that began Feb. 3 have killed at least 100 civilians – some say the number could be in the several hundreds – and flooded YouTube and social networking sites with horrific images. At least 5,400 Syrians have been killed in the 11-month uprising. But the prospects for action like the NATO intervention in Libya are virtually nil.

The barrage on Homs, a center for opposition to the continued rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, eased on Saturday as the Arab League held an emergency meeting in Cairo on the war there. The group called on the UN Security Council to send peace-keepers to Syria to end the bloodshed. The opposition in Syria has been braying for international military assistance for weeks. But it remains highly unlikely that they will get the direct intervention they're asking for.

Supporters of liberal intervention – the notion that international powers should override national sovereignty to protect civilians and improve societies – had crowed that Libya was a model for the 21st century, a further pillar supporting the "responsibility to protect." 

But Syria's war, longer and bloodier than when NATO intervened in Libya's, is not stirring anyone to action. There are differences between Libya and Syria in alliances, terrain, and military capability. International action would be longer, costlier, and would probably require an invasion to be fully effective. And at any rate, Russia and China, angry over how the UN's role in ousting Col. Qaddafi played out, have vowed to veto attempts at action in Syria.

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