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 Unco-ordinated, hit-and-run rebel raids have been replaced by targeted attacks on military bases; large swathes of territory, particularly in the north of the country, are now outside of Damascus's control; even the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

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Separate lives: Boston’s streets illustrate the divide between the town’s communities  

Migrants have far more to offer than hard work and wealth creation, yet too many exist in isolation from the rest of society

Emily Dugan
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has sold 40 million copies  

Go Set a Watchman: Harper Lee’s new novel is more than just a literary event

Joseph Charlton
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'