The priority for Syrian foreign policy for the
past two-and-a-half years has been to avoid foreign military intervention on
behalf of the rebels.
By the same token, the opposition has tried by every
means to secure armed intervention by the US and its allies sufficient to win
The action by the Syrian government most likely
to push an unwilling White House into military involvement has been the open
use of chemical weapons against civilians.
Damascus has furiously denied in the
past that it had done so and proof has been lacking. Rebel accusations might
have been fabricated and claims by Western governments were tainted by
Experts specialising in chemical weapons had
hitherto expressed scepticism, even derision, at supposed proofs of chemical
weapons use in the media.
CBRNe World, a journal specialising in chemical and
biological weapons, asked of one alleged sarin gas attack: "Could it be
real – possibly. Could it be misdiagnosed and something other than sarin –
possibly. Could it be fake – possibly."
Considering the question two
months ago of whether chemical weapons had been used in Syria, Professor Julian
Perry Robinson of Sussex University, a renowned expert, concluded:
"Onlookers can as yet believe the reporting only if they are willing to
trust unsubstantiated assertion or incomplete evidence."
So it is difficult to think of any action by the
Damascus government more self-destructive than the Syrian army launching a
massive chemical-weapons attack on rebel-held districts in its own capital.
the evidence is piling up that this is exactly what happened last Wednesday and
that the Syrian army fired rockets or shells containing poison gas which killed
hundreds of people in the east of the city.
The opposition may be capable of
manufacturing evidence of government atrocities, but it is highly unlikely it
could do so on such a large scale as this.
President Obama's security advisers were meeting
yesterday in the White House with the strong possibility that there will be a
US military response, such as missile strikes from outside Syrian airspace on
Syrian military units or bases from which the chemical weapons may have
No doubt Obama would like to keep out of a full-scale
intervention, as he made clear last week, saying of the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan that people who "call for immediate action, jumping into stuff
that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can
result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions
that actually breed more resentment in the region".
blatancy of the poison-gas attacks will make it difficult and damaging for him
not to react militarily.
If the Syrian leadership knew that chemical
weapons were going to be used, what could be their motive? They may be so convinced
of American weakness and so confident of the backing of Russia and Iran that
they feel they can ignore international condemnation.
They may have seen
Egypt's security forces shoot down hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters on
14 August and thought, "If they can get away with it, so can we."
Even so, the benefits of such an operation were always going to be outweighed
by political costs abroad.
Other factors, too, may have been at work. The
Middle East has been bubbling, this past year, with exaggerated talk of US
political and military decline, pumped up by visits from US politicians such as
Senator John McCain denouncing White House "cowardice".
No doubt the
US has a weaker position in the Middle East because of the Iraq and Afghan
wars, when its army failed to defeat limited guerrilla forces. But US and Nato
intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was cited last week as an example of
interventions that succeeded.
Still, the Balkans are different from the wider
Middle East where American interventions have usually brought disaster.
was bloody failure in Lebanon in 1982-83 and in Somalia in 1993; and even the
one exception, the First Gulf War in 1991, did not turn out so well for the US
in the long term.
Moreover, the failure of the Iraq war of 2003 and the ongoing
Afghan conflict have soured American voters' enthusiasm for other Middle East
Syria's conflict differs from Iraq, Afghanistan
and Libya in another respect: Moscow is back as a world power and cannot be
ignored or intimidated.
One of the reasons Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in
1990 was the calculation that the fall of the Soviet Union would leave the US
as sole superpower and cramp independent action by Iraq or other regional
Russia is back for the first time in more than 20 years as a powerful
player, embittered by what it understandably sees as a double-cross over Nato
intervention in Libya and determined not to let that happen again.
Russia's re-emergence is not the only factor
restraining America. For all the wringing of hands in Washington and Western
Europe about the human tragedy, the present situation is not entirely against
Syria, so long the heart of opposition to the West and Israel
in the Arab world, is, for now, fragmented and weak. Any decisive outcome
ending the war carries with it clear risks for Western interests. If President
Bashar al-Assad wins then this is a defeat for them and a success for Iran and
If he is defeated then al-Qa'ida-linked organisations, such the
al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – increasingly the
most effective military component of the opposition – will be among those who
The US, Britain and France may want the war to end but only on
their own terms – probably involving the decapitation of the government, but
stopping well short of revolutionary change.
What will be the impact of the chemical-weapons
attack within Syria? It will frighten people further in rebel areas and will
show the utter ruthlessness of the government, something scarcely in doubt.
the action is also a sign of weakness, suggesting the Syrian army cannot
capture with conventional arms districts such as Jobar close to the centre of
Plenty of Syrian officials can see the criminal stupidity of using
chemical weapons, so experts are asking if some state faction might want to
sabotage possible peace talks by deploying them. A problem with this scenario
is nobody else has noticed peace talks getting anywhere.
The Syrian government denies it had anything to
do with the gas attack, but it has not given a credible account of what did
Initially, there was disbelief that it would do something so patently
against its own interests, but all the evidence so far is that it has done just