Damascus dilemma

There are no tidy solutions in sight as the Syrian crisis escalates.

The US assertion that there is "no doubt" Bashar al-Assad's regime used chemical weapons in attacks near Damascus last week and the US military's declaration of its readiness make intervention in Syria seem imminent. Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, but the requisites of the UN's Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm may already have been met by a conflict that has seen an estimated 1,00,000 casualties and almost two million refugees. The near certainty of Russian and Chinese vetoes means such intervention will lack the ultimate stamp of the UNSC.

A year ago, Barack Obama said chemical weapons constituted the "red line" that, if crossed, would change his "calculus". Assad's alleged use of such weapons earlier this year had led Obama to urge a limited arming of Syrian rebels, a move held up by Congress. The increasing dominance of radicals — especially al-Qaeda affiliates — among the rebels means an intervention now could help the very outfits the international community doesn't want to see replace Assad. Moreover, military action, however limited, could worsen the humanitarian crisis on the ground.

The US and the UK have ruled out "regime change" and underscored the possibility of "limited action". Even so, the prospects of adverse consequences stretch from Israel and Lebanon to Iran (Assad's staunchest regional ally), where its new, moderate president could be cornered by hardliners. Given the chances of further regional destabilisation, Obama's best bargain might be to use the likely intervention to force Assad to the negotiating table.

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