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Jonathan Littell: early intervention could have saved Syria -

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MARK COLVIN: Human Rights Watch posted a poignant chart on social media yesterday, with the caption: "In 2011, Syria's population was 22.4 million. Today, more than half are dead, displaced, or exiled."

Breaking that down, it means quarter of a million dead, at least four million refugees and another seven 7.6 million internally displaced, meaning effectively refugees in their own country.

With hindsight, it can seem that this spiral into utter horror and chaos was almost predestined. But there was a time when people had hoped that it would turn out differently.

In early 2012, the writer Jonathan Littell was smuggled into the city of Homs. His book 'Syrian Notebooks' documents what he saw.

JONATHAN LITTELL: It was really a tipping point where many of us felt that some kind of intervention or at least muscular assistance could have tipped the scales in the right direction.

At the time when the opposition forces were mostly committed to democratic change, to rule of law, to, you know, a certain normal functioning administration civil society and basically values similar to our own.

The radical temptation was already there but was being contained, as I described in the book. The fact that we just stood back and let things happen only encouraged those temptations. That and the fact that people who were providing them assistance were of course providing assistance to the more extremists and the more radical groups like our Saudi allies and the Qataris - those types of people.

MARK COLVIN: So there were a lot of young idealists still?

JONATHAN LITTELL: Oh yeah absolutely. The people we worked with were all young very idealist, very courageous, very determined, very normal Syrians. And, you know, whose dream was to overthrow the regime and live in a normal country in which all the face and communities would be represented.

And this was a constant like motif of all the discussions we had, which was Syria belongs to the Syrians and the Syrians are everybody who is a Syrian, whether they're Jews or Shiite or Ishmaelite or Kurd or Sunni conservatives as in Homs or Christian - we're all Syrians, and the problems is the regime. The problem is not between us.

MARK COLVIN: There is a pattern in revolutions - the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Iranian Revolution - where there often are a lot of young idealists at the centre at the beginning but the most ruthless take over. Was that inevitable?

JONATHAN LITTELL: I'm very sceptical of this kind of broad historical analogy; I mean you could immediately take the counter example of the American Revolution, which turned out pretty well.

You know, it does indeed there is a phenomenon in revolution; I don't think it's a mechanically necessary one. In this case, what mattered would have been what the dominant forces would have been. And the quicker, you know, the thing could have been ended, the quicker there could have been a solution to it, the more the moderate forces would have been powerful, organised, motivated.

They were very fragmented, but there was a general common sense of purpose to them.

MARK COLVIN: And is it now one of those appalling problems that has no solution, that nobody can see any solution? Is it as some people think going to go on like the 30 years of war in the 17th century?

JONATHAN LITTELL: It's very hard to say. I mean, back in the glorious days of the 70s and 80s, the you know, Western community led the Lebanese war go on for 15 years quite savagely, and it did until the Syrians intervened.

It's all operation of balance of power. I mean, Syria is completely impossible to predict right now. It's a stalemate and it will remain a stalemate until the balance of power shifts. What will shift the balance of power is very hard to say.

Obviously the American-Iranian agreement has the possibility of affecting that balance. There have been shivers of diplomatic something - quite vague but still some form of movement. At the same time, you know, Bashar goes right ahead of bombs open air markets on Sundays killing hundreds of civilians and nobody seems really quite bothered by that any more than usual.

So you know it's hard to call.

MARK COLVIN: But if Assad actually fell in the next six months, say, what kind of consequence would there be?

Would there be any possibility of setting up a new Syria or would there be a long period of complete anarchy and civil war?

JONATHAN LITTELL: Probably the second. Probably. I mean again it depends how it would happen, I don't think it's going to happen but it would depend how it happened - which forces would, you know, cause them to fall - it's very hard to predict at this stage.

I mean, that's what the Americans are afraid of, and that's why they are tacitly allowing Assad to remain in power and closing their eyes to everything he does because they are afraid that his fall would precipitate a power vacuum which ISIS would exploit.

And they're quite possibly right in their analysis but at the same time their lack of efforts towards defeating ISIS are fairly appalling too, so it's a hard one to call.

MARK COLVIN: Jonathan Littell, whose book is called 'Syrian Notebooks'. The full interview will be on the PM website from this evening.