As the crisis in Syria grows with the allegations of the use of Chemical weapons by the rebels, it is impossible not to be struck by the sense of paralysis that defines the global reaction to what, if taken at face value, is the gravest use of Chemical warfare on a civilian population for a quarter of a century since Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds at Halabja.

As the two loudest dissenting voices on the UN Security Council, Russia and China make convenient fall-guys for Western handwringing over the difficulty of taking punitive and decisive action. China has a long standing policy of non-intervention in what it considers internal matters of other states; while Russia is Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s greatest ally. The Cold War may have ended; but proxy conflicts all over the globe between Russia and the United States, at least in economic if not military terms, are still essential both to Russia’s economy, and its national pride. Russia has called for independent UN experts to investigate the allegations of chemical weapons attacks – but has put the burden of proof on the Rebels, rather than on the Assad government over which it could possibly exert influence. Many would like the UN inspection team to expand the area over which it is able to investigate to include the site of the latest tragedy, but without Russian pressure, there is no chance that this is going to happen.

But pretending that securing unanimous Security Council support for action of whatever kind would result in an international solution to a deep and complicated crisis not only underestimates quite how unattractive all the options are – but also ignores the reality that there is absolutely no appetite for intervention – either within government, or amongst the public.

In the wake of broadly unsuccessful interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq policy makers and citizens alike are extremely wary to commit themselves to action which invariably costs more in terms of resources and lives than any initial estimate would admit. Interventions such as these are prone to “mission creep” – where the broadening and deepening of the initial action is an inevitable consequence of the situations on the ground, the realities of war and conflict.

Whatever the truth of the claims of the use of Chemical weapons the crisis has strong overtones of the claims of the profligacy and potency of Weapons of Mass Destruction in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. With so many competing claims about the use and users of Chemical weapons, policy makers are decidedly reticent to act on partial and unsubstantiated information. The public are not willing to accept half-truths as a reason to intervene and potentially send their countrymen into dangerous situations – particularly not to the Middle East and North Africa with its myriad of nihilistic problems without solutions.

The UN, the West, or the United States would also be held accountable for whatever regime emerges from the power struggle if it were to intervene. In Egypt, where President Obama tacitly supported the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring, he is held in disregard both by disgruntled Egyptians who saw him supporting the new Muslim Brotherhood backed President Mohammed Morsi – and subsequently, due to the US government’s funding links with the Egyptian Army which overthrew President Morsi in early July – he is seen as the orchestrator of a coup in a Democratically elected country.

Therefore it is likely that President Obama’s “red line” – the use of Chemical weapons being the point at which intervention is inevitable – is likely to be blurred. Despite the acclaim and clamour that met him internationally upon his election, this is not a President with an appetite for International affairs and certainly not one who wants to tarnish his reputation as the President who removed troops from Afghanistan and Iraq by embroiling America in another seemingly endless war in the Arab peninsula.


Despite talk of a new “range” of options available to the US following the latest tragedy, do not be under the mistaken impression that American hesitance derives from consideration for international law or being hamstrung by the restraints of multilateral action and agreement. Russia and China publicly opposing any intervention in Syria is politically useful to the West, which has no will, desire, or plan to militarily intervene.









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