An American military strike against Syria in the next few days is a virtual certainty, despite the fact that US public opinion seems as tepid about this action as in the UK. In which case it may be that what is driving the US is not so much an abhorrence against resort to chemical weapons – the US said nothing when Israel used the white phosphorous chemical agent against the Palestinians in Gaza 2 years ago, and also said nothing when Iraq used chemical weapons (probably supplied by the West) against the Iranians in the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s. It is perhaps more their perceived need to bolster their global authority having laid down red lines in recent months, and having had Iran repeatedly ignore their warnings over the development of nuclear weapons. But whatever the motive, a military strike is highly unlikely to achieve its objective of deterring Assad’s use of chemical weapons in future, perhaps on an even greater scale, unless the damage inflicted on the Syrian military machine is truly enormous, and the risk of calamitous collateral damage (significant civilian casualties as well as the likelihood of killing many Russian technicians assisting the Syrian armed forces) long before that happens is very high.
Even if such an attack appeared to succeed by knocking out several missile sites and airforce bases, there’s also the deeply regrettable message that would be conveyed that as long as Assad keeps off chemical weapons in future, the West will turn a blind eye to the killing of another 100,000 civilians by conventional munitions. Whether children or adults are slaughtered by bullets, bombs, rocket-propelled grenades or sarin, they’re all equally killed. And if, as John Kerry is now enunciating, the US will act unilaterally if another State (Russia) persistently blocks a consensus in the UN Security Council, it sets a very damaging precedent that could unravel the already weak principle of agreed global authority – an undoing that could well boomerang against the West in future.
There is a better route. Both Russia and China are signatories to the chemical weapons convention of 1925, and their support should be sought to arraign Assad before the International Criminal Court as having committed a war crime that could well gain universal condemnation. On that basis the regional peace conference that was previously planned of all the relevant parties by the US and Russia (and was only derailed by US pique at Putin’s refusal to hand over Edward Snowden) should be reactivated. It could succeed if under UN auspices the arms suppliers on both sides (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey for the rebels and Russia and Iran for Assad) could be mutually persuaded to withhold arms reinforcement and demand that their clients accept a ceasefire.