Almost exactly a year ago, Barack Obama warned that if the Assad regime in Syria resorted to the use of chemical weapons in its fight with the rebels, it would have crossed “a red line”. Now some form of military action by the US, acting in concert with Britain and France, looks imminent following talks at the weekend between Mr Obama and David Cameron, when the two leaders promised “a serious response” to the carnage inflicted on a rebel-held suburb of eastern Damascus.
As the military chiefs of the US, Britain, France, Canada, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia descend on Jordan this week to decide the precise form of that response, we again step into the unknown, and it is hard to feel the slightest optimism about the outcome. If Western governments do try to knock out Syria’s air defences, one of the options up for consideration, strikes will be undertaken in the teeth of bitter opposition on the part of Russia and China, whose governments won’t be represented in Amman, and which don’t, or don’t want to, hold Bashar al-Assad responsible for the massacre near Damascus.
Russia will be furious that the West is against plunging into the Middle East without international agreement, and just as the regime said it would allow UN inspectors access to the site in question. But even assuming Russia’s anger is contained, or that Iran can be kept out of a field in which it feels a direct strategic interest, a bigger question is what military action can now hope to achieve in Syria, where war has been raging for the best part of three years with no end in sight.
Presumably the hope in Washington, London, Paris, Ankara and Jeddah is that the rebels will redouble their assaults on Damascus and finish Mr Assad off once they see the West finally show its teeth. The problem is that we still don’t know who “they” are. Now, more than ever, the rebels are united only in detesting Mr Assad. Beyond that, they remain hopelessly split between jihadist warriors who view supportive Westerners as useful idiots and mainstream Sunni opponents of the Alawite-dominated regime, all of which raises the question of how the US, Britain and France intend to help the rebels they prefer over those they fear.
It is also disturbing that none of those advocating the use of force to expedite the fall of the Assad regime seems to have given much real thought to what kind of society they expect to replace the one that has been in power for several decades.
The Prime Minister should beware the example of Tony Blair, who seriously thought that if he and the Americans got rid of a hated dictator they could install democracy in Iraq. We all know what happened there. If the plight of ordinary Syrians is worsened as a result of any new Western military adventure, undertaken for much the same reasons as the war in Iraq, Mr Cameron will have to accept his share of the blame.