LONDON (Reuters) - Syria's assault on the recalcitrant city of Homs has shredded an Arab peace plan and exposed the failure of world outrage to force President Bashar al-Assad to halt a violent crackdown on an eight-month popular uprising.
Tanks and snipers have battled to cow protesters and hunt army defectors in Homs, killing more than 100, activists say, since the Arab League said on Nov. 2 that Damascus had accepted a plan to pull the army out of cities and talk to its foes.
"The Arab peace plan died on arrival," said Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian-born scholar in Washington. "There has been no let-up in the violence. The Assad regime is in complete defiance mode."
Arab foreign ministers will review the plan on Saturday, but Syrian opponents of Assad show no surprise at its fate.
"I don't think anyone in his right mind was expecting Assad to pull his troops out of the streets and allow peaceful protests," Walid al-Bunni, a lawyer and often-jailed dissident who left Syria for Paris two weeks ago, told Reuters.
"Lack of even a threat of international intervention is viewed by the authorities as a licence to kill," he said.
Evident Arab impotence to deflect Assad from the path he has chosen for survival against what he calls Islamist militants and foreign-backed gangs throws the ball back to Western powers whose own rebukes the Syrian leader has ignored or denounced.
Assad has played on fears that without him Syria could slide into civil war, Islamic militancy or Iraq-style sectarian carnage, causing what he has called a regional "earthquake".
Nadim Shehadi, of London's Chatham House think-tank, said Assad had already lost power, in the sense of legitimacy, but argued that the outside world had effectively propped him up with unheeded calls for reform and dialogue.
"The people who are protesting in Syria seem to have crossed the barrier of fear, but the international community hasn't."
Many Syrians have defied a feared security apparatus to keep up demands for change, despite bloodshed which the United Nations says has cost more than 3,500 lives -- as well as those of 1,100 soldiers and police, according to the government.
Armed with a U.N. Security Council mandate to protect civilians, Western powers lent air support to Libyan rebels who toppled Muammar Gaddafi, but have disavowed any intent to repeat the feat in Syria, in a far trickier area of the Middle East.
Russia and China, stung by the robust Western reading of the U.N. resolution on Libya, oppose even U.N. criticism of Syria, whose uprising was inspired by others in the Arab world.
The Arab League, which had suspended Libya's membership and backed a no-fly zone there, has treated Syria more leniently.
Assad's own doom-laden warnings have reinforced the fears of Syria's neighbours -- Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey -- about the possibly seismic consequences of a power shift in a nation on the faultlines of several Middle Eastern conflicts.
Instability in Syria, Iran's only Arab ally, could spread to Lebanon or Iraq, which have volatile sectarian divides. Israel, long used to a calm border with Syria, frets that Assad's fall could herald less predictable rulers. Syrian refugees have already spilled into Lebanon and Turkey, which is also wary of any revived Syrian support for rebel Kurds in its southeast.
Assad still retains substantial support from his own Alawite minority, part of the business elite in Damascus and Aleppo, Christians and others who fear that Islamist radicals might come to the fore, and, crucially, army and security force commanders.
"Until now there are segments of the Syrian population on the sidelines, afraid for their lives if they go out in the streets, or betting that Assad will survive," said a leading dissident in Syria, who asked not to be named.
He said the Arab League had embarrassed Assad with a plan he could not implement without inviting huge street protests. It could now suspend Syria and refer it to the United Nations, putting pressure on Russia and China to alter their stance.
An Arab League source said a ministerial committee might return to Damascus with a reprimand and perhaps a new deadline for compliance, or despatch Arab observers to identify violators of the deal. Sterner action, such as suspending Syria from the League or blaming it for the violence, was unlikely immediately.
Waheed Abdel Maguid, at Cairo's al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the League was hamstrung by its own rifts, with Algeria, Lebanon and Yemen hostile to penalising Syria, and Iraq, Sudan and Mauritania hesitant.
"This puts the League in an awkward situation," he said. "It holds meetings but is unable to act."
The big powers seem just as indecisive and divided, although seemingly agreed on ruling out military intervention.
"In these conditions, it is not unlikely that Turkey will take some kind of action, with implicit support from Washington and major European capitals," Jouejati said.
But Turkey, now a bitter critic of its former friend, has yet to impose sanctions promised weeks ago, or to send clear signals on the idea of a safe haven or no-fly zone in Syria.
"We hope there will be no need for these type of measures, but of course humanitarian issues are important," Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the Financial Times this month.
Western countries, preoccupied with global economic woes, have sharpened their rhetoric, but otherwise seem at a loss.
"Those leaders trying to hold back the future at the point of a gun should know their days are numbered," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday, referring to Syria, while acknowledging the difficulty of any Libya-style "liberation".
The same day, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Syria's behaviour after the Arab peace plan was "absolutely unacceptable" and that it "could no longer be trusted".
But, like his British counterpart William Hague who deplored Syria's policy, he offered no blueprint for action.
The West has urged Assad's foes to form a united, coherent front, but Chatham House's Shehadi said this was absurd, given the diversity of opinion lurking beneath years of repression.
"This is not really an opposition, this is the whole of Syrian society," he said.
Without decisive outside moves or the growth of a more powerful insurgency at home, Assad could survive for years, said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.
"Today, the opposition remains weak and the Syrian military has the upper hand. That could change if the opposition begins to construct a real insurgency, if Turkey goes to war against Syria by supporting some sort of insurgency, or if a foreign intervention is launched, such as happened in Libya," he said.
"None of these possibilities is on the horizon," Landis added, arguing that small guerrilla groups might begin to proliferate and harass the Syrian military and state.
"If they gain traction, foreign funding and arms, they could transform into a real insurgency over time."
Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman and Tamim Elyan in Cairo; Editing by Giles Elgood