It was not that long ago that Hillary Clinton emerged from a meeting of world officials in Paris to announce that coalition warplanes were en route to their target.

The group had every reason to fear that, if left unchecked, the dictator they were discussing "will commit unspeakable atrocities," the U.S. Secretary of State told reporters.

By some accounts, almost 8,000 civilians had already been killed by his forces, as they relentlessly pounded residential neighbourhoods.

"A ceasefire must be implemented immediately," she said. "That means all attacks against civilians must stop. There should be no mistaking our commitment to this effort."

Finally, military action against Syria? President Bashar al-Assad about to get his comeuppance?

Nope. Those were Clinton's exact words, but they weren't aimed at Damascus.

After a punishing, month-long military siege, Syrian rebels made a "tactical retreat" Thursday from a key district in Homs, saying the humanitarian situation was unbearable.

Within hours of the withdrawal, the Assad regime granted permission for the Red Cross to enter the neighborhood of Baba Amr, which had become a symbol of the resistance.

Full story and photo-gallery.

Last spring's rogue state was Libya and the dictator in question was the late Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

The massive effort against him was praised as a huge success, an example of humanitarian intervention. Canada alone fired almost a thousand missiles from its warplanes over Libya, then celebrated with a victory parade on Parliament Hill.

One year later, Assad is accused of killing an equal number of his citizens — the death toll is "well over 7,500," a UN spokesman said this week —  and shows no sign of stopping. Yet, those same powers, the U.S., Canada and Europe, insist they have no intention of sending their jets and armies to intervene.

Doesn't Syria matter? Actually, the problem is that it matters more than Libya.

House of cards

The thing about Syria is that it sits in the very heart of the Middle East, at the intersection of alliances and vested interests, ethnic and religious groups. Like a house of cards, one reckless move could upset the stability of the whole region.

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Men waited in long lines for bread in cities like Al Qusayr, near Homs, the centre of resistence to the Assad regime. This photo was taken March 1, 2012. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

What's more, this web is as complicated as it is unpredictable.

Syria is not only allied with Iran, it often acts as its agent, channeling arms and support to militant groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

Attacking Syria risks a backlash from any or all of these forces. Reports suggest Iran remains one of Syria's biggest suppliers of arms, as well as military advisers from Tehran's Revolutionary Guards.

Syria's other important connection is with Russia, and Moscow is reluctant to lose its best customer — and only remaining ally — in the Middle East. Damascus buys weapons, big and small, from Russian suppliers, as well as all kinds of other necessities.

As the impact of economic sanctions from the rest of the world increases, and as the need for more weapons and bullets goes up, so does Syria's dependence on Russia

Little wonder that Moscow refuses to give the West a free pass to meddle in Syria (assuming it really wants to) in the form of a Security Council resolution, like the one it agreed to last year for Libya.

A big unknown

Neither the U.S. nor Israel has been particularly happy with Syria's strong connections with Russia and Iran.

Skirmishes with Hezbollah and Hamas are a weekly occurrence for Israel, and Syria's support for these groups is a constant frustration.

On the other hand, Assad's government has been a predictable and stable presence on the other side of Golan Heights, where Israeli and Syrian soldiers have faced off for decades. He's also kept a firm grip on what is believed to be one of the biggest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the Middle East.

If not Assad, then who? That is the question often asked in Israel. And that big unknown is a huge fear.

Complicating the equation is that Assad's internal enemies are far less united than was the opposition to Gadhafi.

None of the myriad groups can claim to represent a broad cross-section of Syria's complex mix of regional, ethnic or religious forces. Nor do they see eye to eye on strategy.

Last week in Tunis, the U.S., Canada, Europe and the Arab League singled out the Syrian National Council for support. But it is far from being a government-in-waiting.

Key Syrian religious and ethnic groups such as the Alawites and the Kurds have not given the SNC their blessing. Nor does it control the major armed force opposing Assad, the Free Syrian Army, which is made up largely of deserters from the regular military.

The nightmare scenario

If foreign forces were to try to topple Assad, like they did Gadhafi or Saddam Hussein, before there is a viable alternative, the country could well slip into chaos.

Religious rivalries alone could tear it apart.

Syria's ruling class belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, and came to power with Hafez al-Assad, the current president's father.

A minority, the Alawites nonetheless cemented their control by holding key positions in the country's political, military and security branches. That keeps them at the top, and the Sunni majority, nearly three-quarters of the population, out.

If Bashar al-Assad falls, not only would the Alawites likely face retribution but Syria could become the scene of a tense showdown between Shia Muslims (supported by Iran) and the Sunnis, who are backed by rich regional heavyweights such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, all of which already want to arm the opposition.

Ethnic and other loyalties could easily cause the conflict to spread into Lebanon and Iraq, neither of which is very stable at the moment. Even Turkey and Jordan could be affected. It could get very ugly.

That nightmare scenario is keeping everyone — even the most outspoken hawks from last year — quite cautious now.

As heart-wrenching as it is to watch Assad's soldiers kill a hundred civilians a day (by UN estimates), leaders in Washington, London, Paris and Ottawa are loath to start a war that could see tens of thousands more die.

Beating Assad's army would be harder than defeating Gadhafi's less formidable force, and "winning" could just push Syria further into turmoil.

It's hard to imagine any kind of victory parade on Parliament Hill by the time this conflict is over.

Homs battle zones


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Source: Wire reports and CBC News stories. Base map: Google