Editorial: Phoney war with Syria is better than a real one

Signs that Assad might use his chemical weapons could change the rules

Share
Related Topics

Although Bashar al-Assad is still clinging on in Syria – despite nearly two years of fighting and an estimated 40,000 deaths – there are signs that his grip on power is slipping. Unco-ordinated, hit-and-run rebel raids have been replaced by targeted attacks on military bases; large swathes of territory, particularly in the north of the country, are now outside of Damascus's control; even the regime's chief spokesman is said to have fled the country.

But Assad is still far from beaten. And as his desperation increases, he becomes more dangerous than ever. The violence is already intensifying, with disturbing reports of cluster bombs dropped in civilian areas. More alarming still are intelligence reports suggesting that the regime may be considering using its chemical weapons. Unlike Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, Syria's chemical arsenal is no mirage: after decades of investment, Damascus is known to have a cache including mustard gas and the nerve agent, sarin.

There were suitably strong words from the international community in response. Barack Obama warned that "the world is watching". There will be "consequences" if chemical weapons are used, he said, and Assad "will be held accountable". Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato Secretary General, echoed the US President's tone, promising an "immediate reaction from the international community".

What neither spelled out, however, was what such consequences might be. Meanwhile, for all the tough talk, the international community remains deeply divided over Syria. Even Nato's decision to send anti-missile batteries to protect Turkey's long Syrian border from stray mortar shells – under discussion in Brussels yesterday – met with disapproval from Russia, a long-standing ally of Damascus. Vladimir Putin tartly dismissed Nato assurances that the Patriot systems are purely defensive with the observation: "If you have a gun on a wall, eventually it will be fired."

Against such a background, it would be easy to conclude that the latest round of condemnations are no more meaningful than all those that preceded them. But for all the cries that "something must be done", there is still no better option than concerted diplomatic pressure and continued efforts to ease the appalling humanitarian cost of the conflict.

Those that would press for military intervention in Syria make the dangerous assumption that such an involvement could only improve the situation. Yet experience – most obviously in Iraq and Afghanistan – suggests otherwise. Nor is arming the rebels any more certain to help. To suggest that only the quality of their weaponry stands between the opposition and success is to underestimate the tenacity of the Assad regime. Equally, it risks overestimating the coherence of the rebels.

Despite recent moves to establish a unified movement, the opposition in Syria remains highly fragmented. Indeed, the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces put together last month (and swiftly recognised by Britain as the "sole legitimate representative" of the Syrian people) almost immediately descended into rows over its membership. Amid such confusion, and with any number of different groups fighting on the ground, the chances of exacerbating the violence are simply too great.

Thus far, then, the balance of risk remains tilted away from direct intervention. Sanctions, humanitarian aid and all possible assistance towards a political solution are the only responsible course. Were Assad to use his chemical weapons, that might change. Until then, a phoney war is still better than a real one.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Critics of Fiona Woolf say she should step down amid accusations of an establishment cover-up  

Fiona Woolf resignation: As soon as she became the story, she had to leave

James Ashton
 

Letters: Electorate should be given choice on drugs policy

Independent Voices
Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities