x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Choosing the least worst option in Syria

For almost two years, the debate has continued as thousands of men, women and children have perished: what to do about Syria? The regime, mired in stalemate but as brutal as ever, has relentlessly pounded the rebels, turning millions into refugees as the world watched. But now the world appears to have had enough.

This paper has long argued that something was needed to break the stalemate, whether arms to the rebels or a no-fly-zone overhead. By killing several hundred civilians with chemical weapons, Bashar Al Assad has forced the international community into action, doubling down on a conflict long watched with profound reluctance and indecision.

This may well be a calculated move by Mr Al Assad to test the hand of the international community.

For the civilised world to tolerate the use of chemical weapons on civilians is to turn its backs on fundamental human values. That cannot be countenanced and, to the credit of the Arab League and other leaders who well know the weariness of their constituencies about involvement in intractable foreign conflicts, will not be.

Two years of non-involvement has brought us to this point, where a desperate dictator resorts to the use of the most inhumane of weapons. But what response should follow? And how can it be more than just symbolic without drawing the instigators into the mire?

The option with the least political risk is the one we are likely to see in the next few days: cruise missile attacks on Mr Al Assad's military capacity. The impact is likely to be limited because the regime is prepared for it, dispersing its armies to civilian areas behind human shields.

Boots on the ground is an option that nobody is considering, for good reason. But what other meaningful action can the outside world adopt to make Mr Al Assad reconsider a political solution to the civil war?

A no-fly zone is the most obvious option, although it will involve greater risk of casualties for the nations taking part. For all the ways Iraq serves as a how-not-to-do-it for American forces, the no-fly zone imposed in northern Iraq after the liberation of Kuwait was a success. It is worth remembering that one reason for that move was Halabja, in which Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on his own people.

But how much would even that help? The chemical weapons used last week were delivered using land-based artillery.

The only certainty here is that this moment marks a tipping point in the protracted Syrian crisis.