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 Unco-ordinated, hit-and-run rebel raids have been replaced by targeted attacks on military bases; large swathes of territory, particularly in the north of the country, are now outside of Damascus's control; even the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

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Port Eliot Festival  

How to keep it real in the digital age this summer

Simon Kelner
 

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on