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Before the shooting starts

The US ought to reflect on the consequences of a response to Syria’s provocations

Only the order is lacking, which the president of the United States must give. The weapons are trained on Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, declared guilty of attacking the civilian population with chemical weapons, in the latest episode of a long civil war for which the regime is mainly to blame. Before the shooting starts, there is still time for reflection, as the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has rightly observed.

The fact that Assad amply deserves an international response on a scale proportionate to his own military power and his capacity to hurt the Syrian people requires no reflection at all. Indeed a certain remorse would be appropriate on the part of all those who have taken so long to react to the deliberate massacres perpetrated since March 2011, plunging the country into an unending sectarian and civil conflict.

No one doubts that Assad’s behavior “is unacceptable and cannot go unanswered,” as NATO has put it. Yet the last-minute hesitations that have begun to corrode the initial impetus do proceed from rational calculation and political sense. An air strike on Syrian installations might have all the moral grounds in the world yet produce the worst practical effects, even in the case that the shots were aimed at the inner leadership of the regime.

There are serious arguments in terms of international law that weigh heavily against a military action by the United States, with the dispensable support of France and the United Kingdom. The impossibility of obtaining a resolution from the UN Security Council — blocked by the right to veto of Russia and China — is echoed by the extreme prudence with which friendly countries and allied organizations, with the exception of London and Paris (and these probably for bad reasons), have received Washington’s show of warlike intentions. Little enthusiasm has been seen in the Atlantic Alliance and the Arab League: both of these being adequate platforms on which to build an international legitimacy to make up for the absence of a UN resolution as occurred with the bombing of Kosovo in 1999.

But it is pragmatic arguments, in terms of results, that must weigh most heavily with the US and its allies. You can never go from absolute chaos to perfect order, and much less thanks to the firing of a handful of missiles, however exact the aim. Finding a solution to a war of this sort requires a great deal of diplomatic savvy and political talent, as well as patience — qualities that have been in short supply in the two-and-a-half years of the Syrian crisis, while the EU was distracted in its own crisis and Obama in his domestic worries, re-election being the first of these.

Many forces in the region would be pleased to see the US step into a new quagmire, where the superpower would lose yet more of its prestige, money and troops. Hence the UN secretary-general’s sensible call to give more time to the chemical-weapons inspectors. War must always be an instrument of last resort, where everything else is tried before beginning it. But in this case there is also a suspicion that the chemical attacks, still pending confirmation in a UN report, were a provocation designed to draw the United States into the conflict.

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