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

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

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 Unco-ordinated, hit-and-run rebel raids have been replaced by targeted attacks on military bases; large swathes of territory, particularly in the north of the country, are now outside of Damascus's control; even the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

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

Neil Pavier: Commercial Analyst

£50,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you a professionally qualified commercial ...

Loren Hughes: Financial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Loren Hughes: Are you looking for a new opportunity that wi...

Sheridan Maine: Finance Analyst

Circa £45,000-£50,000 + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ac...

Day In a Page

Read Next

I might be an MP, but that doesn't stop me fighting sexism with my breasts

Björt Ólafsdóttir

Daily catch-up: opening round in the election contest of the YouTube videos

John Rentoul
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor