Stand by - on a screen near you - for the all-too familiar televisual firework display which means that the US and its allies are forging ahead with the threatened air strikes on Syria.
As politicians argue the pros and cons, most intensely in Washington and London, we hear that UN weapons inspection teams have been ordered to leave Syria on Saturday, a day ahead of schedule, which is one more indication that the pressure is on.
The outcome of the anticipated strikes will not satisfy Assad’s bitterest opponents as they cannot ensure victory for the rebels against the regime. But by the same token those who are warning against air strikes on the grounds that the West will thence be sucked into a maelstrom like we saw in Iraq will not necessarily be able to say “told you so” either.
Parallels with the Iraq invasion are overdrawn. That was a pre-emptive attack based on a false premise with little if any realistic preparation for the aftermath. What is proposed for Syria is punishment for the use of a heinous form of warfare on innocent civilians. This will not solve the Syrian crisis, but it will demonstrate that the international conventions against the use of chemical weapons are not totally without import.
Regional reactions to the use of US and allied force will be mixed. The Syrian opposition, the grab-bag of forces that includes the likes of al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups, will derive some gains from the damage that will be sustained by the Syrian military. That is why Saudi Arabia and Qatar pressed the Arab League into issuing a statement this week which is half-way supportive of the planned allied attacks.
Lebanon and Iraq disassociated themselves from aspects of that statement, largely because their governments contain allies of the Assad regime, notably Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Maliki leadership in Iraq. Yet even they may have misgivings about the danger of chemical warfare becoming a new norm in the suppression of popular resistance, targeted indiscriminately against non-combatants including children.
When al-Qaeda joined the ranks of the predominantly Sunni forces ranged against the US occupation of Iraq and instigated sectarian strife – Hezbollah boasted that unlike al-Qaeda and its ilk, they remained focused on fighting the Israelis rather than killing fellow Muslims and dividing the Arab world. Hezbollah is now fighting with Assad and against al-Qaeda in Syria. The Palestinian movement Hamas, once inspired by Hezbollah and protected by Assad, has fallen out with both - appalled by the violence unleashed on fellow Arabs.
Meanwhile, traditional Arab hostility to Iran, based on ethnic and sectarian rivalries stirred up by the invasion of Iraq, has been reinforced by Tehran’s backing for Assad. As of the chemical attack last week, neither Iran nor its client Hezbollah can be wholly unaware of the costs to their standing in the region of their choice of allies in Syria.
Something must be done
For its part, the Assad regime has long since lost the support it used to garner from its championship of the Arab cause against Israel and the West. And it has forced so many Syrians to flee their homes and seek refuge in neighbouring countries that Assad’s war now threatens the stability of the whole region. Hence the feeling that “something must be done” has grown among those in the Middle East previously implacably opposed to Western interference, in hopes of arresting the descent into chaos, and halt the egregious killing and mass exodus.
In this context, whatever calculations the US and its allies were obliged to make a year or so ago no longer make the sense that they did previously. Western leaders were correct to caution against trying to enter the fray in Syria to effect regime change. But that is not what’s on the cards now.
Previously, also, the Russians (and Chinese) had a point when they stood out against the use of the UN Security Council to give the green light for an intervention which would certainly have been used to pursue regime change. Two years ago, even six months ago, a Western attempt to replace Assad with something more palatable would have carried no guarantee that ordinary Syrians would thereby be better protected. Assad always meant to bring down the whole country rather than cede power.
By shying away from intervention and staying on teh sidelines the Western powers have effectively facilitated a change of context and thence a face new risk calculus. Watching the appalling tragedy in Syria and the call “to do something - anything”, rather than just let it happen, has surfaced repeatedly. But by doing nothing the West cannot be blamed for causing the horrors unleashed. More to the point, the stakes have changed. Whereas once it might have been feasible to think that the situation in Syria could be contained, now it is clear that the implosion of Syria is dragging down not just that country but the region.
Chemicals make Syria a global nightmare
This situation might have dragged on a while longer, with the view prevailing that the battle-lines have become so murky and the range of protagonists so interconnected with the rest of the region, that Western intervention could not sort it out. In any case the Russians would prevent a go-ahead for action from the UN. However, last week chemical weapons were used on a mass scale - and that has transformed a nasty and worsening regional problem into an international one.
The gassing of civilians under the watch, if not the direct orders, of the Syrian regime, represents a direct challenge to all those including Barack Obama, who have deemed such action a “game changer”. If it can happen in Syria without retribution, why not elsewhere? And even those who are against another demonstration of “Western imperialism” in the Middle East, have new concerns to weigh.
The call for democracy across the Arab world has given way to an urgent plea for safety and security. Two years of brutal warfare was bound to change thinking and transform priorities. So Syrians who previously read into Western inaction a cynical disregard for their plight, now express the wish that something, even an aerial onslaught, would finally break the mould and alter the course of the conflict.
Beyond the region, the chemical attack represents a new low and a challenge to the maintenance of any semblance of order in the region. If this is allowed to pass without response, not only will US credibility be lost, but also, there will be no longer any point in believing that moral imperatives can have any bearing on international affairs. This is a means/ends question, and the means used or allowed to be used can either keep hope alive or eliminate it.