10 months ago I wrote that a massacre in Houla, a small town in Syria, would act as a turning point in that country’s civil war. With the slaughtering of women and children, I thought, the world would not stand on the side-lines and let more deaths pile on top of these. At the time, the death toll was 19,000. Now it stands at 70,000. The world is standing on the side-lines.
In some feeble attempt at doing something, Gulf countries have been helping to arm the rebels. This has, indeed, changed the balance of power – making it more equal. But all this has done is lead to stalemate: despite rebel control of some districts of Aleppo and Damascus, the regime still holds both cities. And the shelling continues, and childen keep dying.
The West has dithered. No-one wanted to enter another Arab country in an unwinnable war. To add to worries, it became obvious that any new regime would be Islamist-dominated (as in other countries buffeted by the Arab spring), and no-one fancied being responsible for that.
But no-one could stomach not saying anything. So President Obama drew a line in the sand, which, should the regime cross it, would trigger a severe response. That line was the using of chemical weapons. Last week, news came of a nerve agent attack. The line has been crossed.
Obama reacted with a caution which, unsurprisingly, did not match the rhetoric. He commented that more intelligence was needed, but one would think that photos of blistered skin would be confirmation enough. Finally, as I have been writing, the administration announced that they would be sending the rebels ‘lethal aid’ – in other words, sophisticated weapons. This is the first time America has taken real actions.
But I’d be surprised if he went further; there’s not a lot more he could do anyway. And although lethal aid sounds minor in terms of US foreign policy, it’s far from risk-free. He is gambling that the weapons won’t fall into jihadist hands. Nevertheless, the arms won’t bring the fighters anywhere close to the regime’s artillery power. In short, the use of chemical weapons by President Assad will not mark a turning point. The war of attrition will go on.
So what’s the outlook? It is far from promising. There are two ways it could go: continuing stalemate or a sudden dramatic collapse of the regime. Either way, the conflict is likely to spill over into Lebanon and drag in Iran, while bolstering the Islamists. This does not bode well for a fragile region and a fragile world. But let’s be clear, it seems Assad can gas his people with impunity.