It isn't true to claim that there's nothing Britain can do about the use of chemical weapons in Syria – at least, if the United States was also determined to act. America, acting in concert with its allies, undoubtedly has the military muscle to overthrow the Assad regime. This would halt any use by the latter of such arms. As the Guardian points out today, their deployment against innocents near Damascus yesterday would not be the first time that Assad has been accused of acting in such a way. The US followed Britain and France in stating in June that the Syrian
government had "probably" used chemical weapons three times earlier this year. President Obama has been saying for a year that the use chemical weapons by the regime would be a
"red line" that must not be crossed. That it is likely already to have been crossed will have given the green light to tyrants everywhere. On the face of it, yesterday's horror will have reminded them that it is still turned on, and that American leadership in the world is weak. And while military intervention by the United States has its downsides (to put it mildly), history suggests that non-intervention and isolationism is generally worse.
I write with qualifications bout what happened yesterday because the facts are far from clear. Women and children undoubtedly died in a massacre – today's Times report is graphic – chemical weapons seem to have been used, and it is likely that the regime was the user (in some form): certainly, it has no respect for human life. But as the Guardian reminds its readers, the timing of such an attack by Assad is curious: UN chemical weapons inspectors are currently holding talks with the regime in the Syrian capital. Russia has seized on this oddity to suggest that the attack was "a premeditated provocation" by jihadists. Like Al-Jazeera's report above, this is a reminder that the UN Security Council is split over Syria. Any American-led military intervention wouldn't command its assent. The long shadow of the Iraq war will leave US public opinion with no appetite for such action – and the same is true here.
And although Obama doesn't provide the sense of authority and decisiveness that many other post-war Presidents have projected, he has reasons to hesitate over Syria. As I have written before, it is now consumed by a civil war whose savagery has echoes of Spain in the 1930s. Ideology and religion have become the drivers of barbarism in Syria – in this case, the struggle between Sunni and Shi'ite Islam that is helping to drive tension and conflict in the middle east. (Beside it, as Garvan Walshe points out today, the Israel-Palestine drama is a sideshow.) Western military intervention could indeed topple Assad, thereby stopping him from using chemical weapons against civilians. But what would follow? Whose hands would those weapons fall into? Why would an American-led coalition be more effective in seeking to govern sectarian-torn Syria than the west proved to be in Iraq? Could Britain itself afford such a commitment – politically or militarily? There is a downside to non-intervention, including withholding arms: the flow of refugees from Syria threatens to destablise its neighbours. But the downside of intervenion is even worse. Syria is teaching the west the terrible lesson of the last ten years: very simply, there is an economic and practical limit to our military reach and grasp.