Editorial: Syria’s red line should never have been drawn

One of the first rules of diplomacy is don’t issue threats that you can’t carry out

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The shift in United States policy towards Syria is alarming. This newspaper has warned that arming the disorganised opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime is likely only to increase the bloodshed, however strong the laudable desire to “do something” to end the suffering of the Syrian people.

The Independent hopes that Barack Obama does not seriously intend to pursue the old Cold War ploy of trying to tip the balance in a civil war that is a proxy for wider interests, and we are alarmed by David Cameron’s apparent enthusiasm for such a policy. It is possible that Mr Obama is using the threat of supplying arms to the anti-Assad forces as a way of putting pressure on the Russians to engage in meaningful peace talks. That would be better than if he seriously intends to engage in a local arms race with Vladimir Putin, but even so, it is a dangerous form of diplomacy.

This more benign reading of American policy would see Mr Obama’s “red line” as a case study in the use of rhetoric in geopolitics. He has been trapped by the evidence that his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons has been crossed, and feels that, for the sake of his credibility, he has to ratchet up the US response. However repugnant chemical and biological warfare might be, this is a line that should never have been drawn. One of the first rules of diplomacy is never to issue threats that you are not prepared to carry out, and it has been obvious from his dithering in recent weeks that Mr Obama was far from eager to follow through on his implied threat.

However, even if the announcement that the US will provide “direct military support” to the Supreme Military Council in Syria is reluctant and tactical, it carries all the dangers of escalation that history should have taught us to avoid. If the US is to supply arms to the rebels and to monitor by whom they are used, it will have to supply trainers or “advisers”; it will then be under pressure to impose a no-fly zone to protect those people. If it imposes a no-fly zone, then the aircraft enforcing it are at risk of being brought down in Syria, and then the US military will feel bound to deploy special forces to try to rescue its personnel.

For those reasons, we are worried that the British and French governments have sabotaged the European Union embargo on arms to Syria. In advance of the US announcement this week, David Cameron acted as advocate of the policy of arming the rebels, even while he said – in another echo of Tony Blair’s words in the long run-up to the invasion of Iraq – that “no decision has been made” about British policy.

We hope that we are alarmed rather than alarmist. We understand the reasons for wanting to put an end to Mr Assad’s brutality. We recognise that not all of the armed opposition to Mr Assad comes from al-Qa’ida affiliates. But we realise, too, that the conflict is already a sectarian civil war that threatens to foment a wider Sunni vs Shia conflict throughout the region. The balance of probability is that further outside intervention (in addition to that from Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia) would make matters even worse, rather than better. That is the lesson of interventions in Iraq and Libya. In Libya, the case for Nato intervention was stronger than it is now in Syria, and yet that must be judged more a failure than a success to date.

The best that can be said of Mr Cameron is that he is stepping up the diplomatic effort, meeting Mr Putin in Downing Street tomorrow in advance of next week’s G8 in Northern Ireland. Given how much of these international summits are stage-managed in advance, this weekend may be the last chance for the US, the UK and France to pull back from the point of unstoppable escalation in a war that is already spreading beyond Syria’s borders.

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