x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The choice in Syria is morality versus history

The real challenge will be how to create conditions and dynamics that will eventually pave the way towards a just settlement of the civil war.

The very public about-turns in London and Washington over how to respond to the use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians merely serve to emphasise the lack of good options on offer.

President Barack Obama's decision to defer the choice to Congress, an institution so gridlocked that it has been unable to agree on even basic legislation, telegraphs the message that he does not want to do anything at all.

The only parties empowered by this state of affairs are Bashar Al Assad and those supporting his murderous regime, Iran and Russia.

One wonders how history will look upon this episode, if some of the most powerful nations on the planet had evidence of an egregious breach of the most fundamental human rights and did nothing.

For those in London and Washington taking a more myopic view than that allowed historians, the decision is profoundly influenced by the circumstances behind the invasion of Iraq, which 10 years later continues to cast a deep shadow on the electorates of both countries.

One cannot disassociate the American intelligence on Syria from the flawed claims a decade ago of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. As the Commons revolt faced by British prime minister David Cameron showed, voters who believe they were sold a war on a lie do not forgive easily and they certainly do not forget.

But politics is the art of the achievable. What can be done that will assuage the public's clear opposition to direct involvement but also sends an unambiguous message that the use of chemical weapons on civilians is unacceptable and will not be tolerated?

A starting point is acknowledging that the US and Britain, along with nations in this region, already have a stake in this fight. As in Afghanistan, the jihadis becoming battle-hardened and radicalised in Syria will not stay within its borders.

A second acknowledgement is that the use of chemical weapons on civilians is the most horrendous type of human rights violation. The civilised world faces a clear test of morality.

These factors make a limited but focused strike on Mr Al Assad's military capacity the least worst option, even if the impact is more likely to be symbolic than transformative.

And that is the easiest part. The real challenge will be how to create conditions and dynamics that will eventually pave the way towards a just settlement of the civil war.