The prospect of military action against the Assad regime by western powers has become increasingly real. Soon it may be all but inevitable. But what kind of action, for what purpose, in the service of what larger strategy? All this remains obscure.
Evidence of massive civilian casualties in north-eastern suburbs of Damascus emerged on Wednesday 21 August. By the weekend, Médecins sans Frontières offered compelling and impartial evidence of the horror - over 3,000 patients presenting symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic agents on the morning of the attack, of whom 355 died. Only five days after the attack, increased activity was reported at the UK Akrotiri air base in Cyprus. Meanwhile there was a UN investigation team in Syria investigating earlier allegations of nerve gas use by both sides; diplomatic pressure, with cooperation from Syria's allies Russia and Iran, got it access to the new attack sites, though as it started work it was shot at by unidentified snipers.
For many people, the issue of evidence will be the big one, especially after it turned out Iraq didn't have nuclear weapons after all. The conservative Telegraph is clear that the first condition for approving military action is that it be legal and legitimate, which means the evidence must be unassailable.
It is not clear how far the evidence will go, however. The UN investigation team is there to collect blood and soil samples so as to analyse what happened. But their mandate does not include identifying who did it. At the end of their efforts we may have proof that a horrible crime has been committed but not by whom - even if we think reasonable deduction points one way rather than the other. Reportedly, US analysis of the evidence will be released in the next few days but unless the US has agents on the ground and is willing to go public about them, it's hard to see in advance what more its evidence will show than the UN's.
To my mind, however, the evidence is far from the most important part of the story. It is an obvious logical point that if the evidence offers unvarnished and unspun proof of grotesque criminality, that does not mean that any action that follows is therefore justified. The argument will depend not only on the strength of the moral case but also on other factors including what action is planned and with what intended outcome.
Action and Scenarios
The predominant image of likely action seems to be air or missile strikes and perhaps increased arms supplies to the anti-Assad forces. For the time being, the prospect of forces on the ground seems not to be a real option in almost anybody's mind. Thankfully.
I remain of the opinion that a full scale intervention to ensure the victory of the ant-Assad forces would not suit the preferences of US policy makers in particular as well as a scenario in which war continued for a long time. This would bleed the power and weaken the regional influence not just of Assad but of Iran, a much bigger prize.
It's a grisly scenario and contains nothing but misery for the people of Syria. I am not surprised to find arch-realist Edward Luttwak, author inter alia of the pleasingly titled article, 'Give War a Chance', setting out his view in the New York Times at the weekend that an enduring stalemate in Syria is the only viable policy option for the US. He argues it can be simply achieved by arming the insurgents until they are doing well, then denying them arms till they are doing badly, then arming them, then not.
What seems most likely, has started to feature in the political debate and is wholly compatible with a long-term strategy of bleeding Assad's regime and its backers is a limited missile strike. This avoids the risks of a major intervention but has nothing else to recommend it.
Of course, if judged by the criterion of ending the conflict or tipping the balance of advantage decisively towards the insurgents, a limited strike will not achieve anything. But there are some proponents of a strike who will come out and say that is part of the point.
UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has already set out the ground for this. He said that the action would be purely a response to the use of chemical weapons and nothing more: "What we are not considering is regime change, trying to topple the Assad regime, trying to settle the civil war in Syria one way or another."
In this sentiment he's joined by Labour leader Ed Miliband who has set three conditions for offering his party's support to a strike against Assad, one of which is that the action must be "specifically limited to deterring the future use of chemical weapons."
This seems quite likely to become the centre ground consensus, the moderate view, the political common sense of the day. So let me be very careful and nuanced in expressing my own perspective on it.
It is barking mad. And cruel too.
The success record of limited strikes
It is cruel because it will raise expectations of escalation among Syrians who want Assad overthrown, only for them to be dashed with the passage of time.
And it is mad for two reasons. First, taken on its own terms, there is no reason to expect it will work. What is the record?
Remember US missile strikes against actual and suspected al-Qaeda targets in the 1990s? I would not argue that they caused 9/11 but they did nothing to deter it. Or how about the US air strikes against Libya's Gadhafi in 1986? Again, I won't argue they caused the Lockerbie bombing two years later but they did nothing to deter it.
Second, it is mad because you cannot launch missiles at a state involved in a civil war and think you are having no impact on that. It surely does not need to be said that if Assad's forces have used chemical weapons, that is as part of that same civil war. This is not some other, separate issue. To launch missile strikes without having a clear idea of how they fit into the bigger picture is indeed madness.
A peaceful goal needs peaceful means
And that is the problem, the bigger picture into which missile strikes fit is slowly bleeding Syria and its main regional backer, Iran. The bigger picture that might bring something like real peace to Syria does not include missile strikes.
It is not an easy argument to make for moral outrage about the use of chemical weapons is the obvious civilised reaction. But moral outrage does not necessarily make good political strategy. To repeat points I made when last I wrote on Syria, before they can start playing a useful role in building a more peaceful future for the country, western leaders need to understand three things:
1.They cannot do it alone.
2.If they seek a military option, it will not be easy.
3.If they prefer a diplomatic option, their eventual deal-making will involve negotiating with Russia, Iran and Syria among others.
The use of chemical weapons is awful. But nothing about them changes the political logic of achieving peace in Syria. If that is not the primary goal of western power then their policy is wrong-headed and duplicitous. If it is the prime goal, then missile strikes are wrong-headed.