With William Hague writing-off further diplomacy, John Kerry talking tough, and Tony Blair announcing his support for intervention, it seems that conflict is inevitable, but is it desirable?
Last time Britain and USA went to war without a UN mandate it created a human catastrophe that cost hundreds of thousands of lives, billions of dollars and badly damaged the West's credibility at home and abroad. 10 years later it's Russia and China that are likely to veto any UN Security Council resolution authorising military action, and this time it's Cameron and Hague arguing that intervention could be legal without UN approval.
What has been unfolding in Syria is clearly a very ugly and violent civil war, with negative and reactionary elements on both sides. It's obvious that something has to be done to stop the war and the killing. But military action is the failure of politics and should never be used as an expression of moral outrage alone; it should only ever be used as a legitimate and humanitarian response to restore peace. There is also something about the words 'from the people who brought you Afghanistan and Iraq' that should make any hawk stop to reconsider their views.
At the time of writing UN inspectors are in Syria, trying to confirm which side has used the disputed chemical weapons. We can be almost entirely certain that the weapons have been used, but it would be folly to continue an irreversible build-up to war before the inspectors have finished. In May a UN inquiry into human rights abuses in Syria found evidence that rebel forces may have used chemical weapons. So far no independent and verifiable proof has been presented to show that the attacks were carried out by Assad. Of course this obviously doesn't mean that they weren't, but the threshold for proof in matters concerning life and death should always be as high as possible.
Any intervention would need to be clear about what its desired outcomes are and who it is supporting. If Assad is removed then who will fill the power vacuum? What are the guarantees that the successor would be less repressive? It is worth remembering that only a few years ago the British Government wasconsidering giving Assad a knighthood. There doesn't appear to be any wider plan as to how the West might aid Syria's transition towards a more stable and peaceful state.
Some estimates show that there are up to 1,200 different rebel units in Syria, including some exceptionally reactionary ones. In any situation like this it becomes near impossible to ensure that only the 'good guys' are getting helped. In Afghanistan the west worked with the Northern Alliance, a group condemned by Human Rights Watch for human rights abuses including killings, discriminate aerial bombardment, direct attacks on civilians and executions. Even in Libya, which many hold up as a successful example of humanitarian intervention, there was widely reported lynching and racist attacks from the rebels in the aftermath of a situation that was a lot less complicated than Syria.
The protests that broke out in Damascus in 2011 may have been secularist and often progressive in nature, but Al-Qaeda has been involved for more than a year via the Jabhat al-Nusra rebel faction, which was originally funded by an Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq. The exceptional Patrick Cockburn at the Independent has pointed out that anti-government rebels have conducted a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Syrian Kurds in the north-east of the country, and have forced 40,000 to flee across the border into northern Iraq within less than a week. Of course there will be many progressives who want Assad to be removed, but it will be a tragedy if the West aids in replacing him with forces every bit as bad.
There will be many that see a failure to respond with force as a sign of weakness, but the motivation for action should not be about looking tough, but rather what is in the interest of the civilians affected.
There is also the issue with legacy. Intervention is long term commitment, this July Iraq had its bloodiest month since 2008 and is still paying the price for brutal invasion, a disorderly transition and inadequate planning for the aftermath. When millions marched in 2003 it was to stop what was to become the worst British foreign policy decision since Suez. One of the scars of Iraq is an increased public skepticism of foreign interventions, with polls suggesting only 9% of Britons and Americans would support a conflict now.
There is no question that those responsible for the chemical attacks deserve to feel the full force of international law, but air strikes into densely populated cities are not the way to do that. As tensions are mounting and death toll is rising, the need for a political solution could not be starker. A UN-lead peace process that involves the main local and regional players is by far the best solution. Assad needs to be put in front of an international court with his innocence or guilt being established by due and legitimate process.
Both sides of the conflict depend on their international allies for money and weapons. This means that both Russia and the West should be using their sway to prevent any further escalation. A diplomatic solution, coupled with the distribution of humanitarian aid and calls for a ceasefire have to be the priorities, otherwise it is likely that Syria's nightmare will get worse and those who will suffer most will be its people.