Whatever the extract truth about the chemical weapons attack east of Damascus on Wednesday of last week, it seems to have been on a huge scale.
Aid organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres says three hospitals it supports in the Damascus governorate treated 3,600 people with “neurotoxic symptoms”. Of these, 355 are reported dead.
US president Barack Obama and British prime minister David Cameron have pledged a “serious response from the international community”. They mean the Western powers, since Russia and China are opposed to the United Nations intervening against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
But what will the “response” be? Having lost one war in Iraq and being in the process of losing another in Afghanistan, Obama is desperate to avoid sending US troops back to the Middle East. He warned last week against “us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region”.
Cameron and French foreign minister Laurent Fabius are more gung-ho, but the Nato intervention in Libya in 2011 showed how dependent Britain and France are on the US to do the heavy lifting. Cameron also faces considerable opposition within his own party to Syrian intervention. In June Tory backbenchers demanded a House of Commons vote before any military action.
As in Libya, the most probable form this would take is air and missile strikes. The Tel Aviv daily Haaretz says the Israeli military expects the US to resort to “Tomahawk diplomacy”. Four US destroyers armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles have been moved closer to the Syrian coast.
How much effect this will have on the desperate struggle between the Assad regime and Syrian revolutionaries is anybody’s guess. Back in June Patrick Cockburn, one of the best commentators on the Middle East, wrote in the London Review of Books:
“Five distinct conflicts have become tangled together in Syria: a popular uprising against a dictatorship which is also a sectarian battle between Sunnis and the Alawite sect; a regional struggle between Shia and Sunni which is also a decades-old conflict between an Iranian-led grouping and Iran’s traditional enemies, notably the US and Saudi Arabia. Finally, at another level, there is a reborn Cold War confrontation: Russia and China v. the West.”
It is this complexity as well as the fear of another quagmire that gives Obama pause.
He has long called Assad using chemical weapons a “red line” that would trigger intervention. But now Iran’s deputy chief of staff, Massoud Jazayeri, has thrown his words back in his face, warning that “any crossing of Syria’s red line will have severe consequences for the White House”.
Already the war is spilling across Syria’s borders. The Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah has sent its fighters to shore up Assad’s forces. Car bombings directed at anti-Assad Sunni mosques in Lebanon’s second city, Tripoli, killed 42 people last week. There has also been an upsurge of sectarian killings in Iraq.
Western options are therefore very limited. Cockburn pointed out in last Sunday’s Independent, “For all the wringing of hands in Washington and Western Europe about the human tragedy, the present situation is not entirely against their interests.
“Syria, so long the heart of opposition to the West and Israel in the Arab world, is, for now, fragmented and weak. Any decisive outcome ending the war carries with it clear risks for Western interests,” by strengthening either Assad and his backers or his jihadi opponents linked to Al Qaida.
So here is Syria’s tragedy. Outside powers have, whether or not intentionally, allowed Assad to survive. Russia, Iran, and Hizbollah have propped him up militarily. His regional opponents—Saudi Arabia and Qatar—have done their best to give the revolution a sectarian Sunni cast that limits its broader appeal.
Meanwhile the US is confronting the limits of even its power. But as the imperial underwriter of the entire system of states in the Middle East it is deeply implicated in this catastrophe. More than ever we see that the real democratic force is not the West but popular revolution from below.