A change of tone on Syria

Late last year, the appetite was far stronger and such a plan might just have worked

The sombre warning delivered to Congress by General Martin Dempsey, the Pentagon’s top uniformed officer, about the risks of increased involvement in Syria’s terrible civil war is a measure of how attitudes have changed in the US – the sole Western country whose intervention could tip the military balance decisively towards the rebels.

Late last year, the appetite was far stronger, as a potent alliance of Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta and David Petraeus, the former heads of the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA respectively, were all urging President Obama to step in. So too was General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Just conceivably, such a plan might have worked then. Momentum in the conflict lay with President Assad’s opponents, and although they were divided and poorly organised, radical factions were less prominent. Today, the case for US intervention is much weaker.

A strong danger exists that US weapons will fall into extremist hands, while serious military options such as a no-fly zone or major strikes against Assad forces would cost tens of billions and drag the US into a third Middle East war in little more than a decade – at a moment when the risk of a generalised Sunni-Shia conflict looms large. Not surprisingly, even General Dempsey has changed his mind.

However remote, the only solution to a conflict that has taken 100,000 lives and turned 1.7 million Syrians into refugees is diplomatic. The country is lurching towards de facto partition. While government forces have gained ground, and President Assad may now remain in office for years, swathes of Syria are likely to remain under the control of his enemies. The economic devastation, meanwhile, is incalculable.

The best hope still lies in the planned conference jointly sponsored by the US and Russia. Although the delays testify to the appalling complexity of the conflict, among myriad bad options, it is the only one that offers the glimmer of a chance to save a shattered country.