The protests against the martyrdom of a few teenagers caught spraying anti-regime graffiti on a wall in Damascus have burgeoned into a civil war, one that is ever more sectarian. The ongoing bloodletting in the face of Western passivity has given rise to a cluster of quid pro quo lines of reasoning. For example, the argument against supplying arms to the rebels, for the good reason that they will fall into the hands of extremists — ignoring the fact that, if there are now extremists in Syria, it is because weapons were not given to the moderates two years ago. Meanwhile, Assad's use of the term "terrorists" in reference to unarmed demonstrations against his all-powerful family clan has had the perverse effect of creating real terrorists, such as the Al-Nusra Front and other groups linked to Al Qaeda, which diminishes the possibility of an armed intervention to stop a conflict that has already cost some 110,000 lives.
A cartoon that appeared a few weeks ago in the International Herald Tribune shows a mountainous heap of skulls packaged in different plastic bags, labeled deaths by airstrikes, helicopters, artillery, tanks, machine guns, mortars, etc, and beside the heap are a couple of unpackaged corpses. Two UN officials look on and say: "These ones seem to have died from gas. We have to do something." The cartoon rubs salt in the open wound of the complex and ambiguous interplay between humanitarian and juridical considerations, and conventional and prohibited weapons. While the massive use of the former has not produced in Syria, as it did in Bosnia, a military intervention by the world's hegemonic military power, the use of the latter opened, in Obama's book, the door to an intervention blessed by international law — a law that's rather fuzzy in its outlines, in that the victors of World War II who sit on the UN Security Council cannot even agree on a brief punitive operation.
The UN-controlled destruction of Syria's chemical arsenal gives Assad ample breathing room and enables an embarrassed Obama to save face
Facing the dilemma of a choice between bad and worse (the repercussions of airstrikes in the already explosive scenario of the Syrian region), the American president opted to cop out by putting it before Congress. Out of his sleeve Putin pulled the offer of UN-controlled destruction of the Syrian chemical arsenal, which gives Assad ample breathing room, and enables an embarrassed Obama to save face. The Russian czar's adroit chess move leaves the situation at a stalemate, arranging things agreeably for all the parties involved, except of course the unfortunate people of Syria.
Of all the articles I have read on this matter recently, the nearest to the mark of the raw reality is, I think, that of Edward N. Luttwak, which appeared in The New York Times and then in Le Monde. With a cold pragmatism that disregards humanitarian and legal considerations, he sets forth in clear terms what his country's interests are, after the sour experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq. A victory for Assad, he says, would strengthen the Shiite axis of Hezbollah and Iran: a serious setback for Washington and her ally Israel. A victory for the extremist rebels would spread jihadism throughout the Middle East and the Arabian peninsula. Thus, only one solution can do the United States any good: a prolonged stalemate. To this end, he says, "we have to arm the rebels when the forces of Al-Assad seem likely to prevail, and suspend these supplies when the rebels seem to be gaining the advantage."
In short: let them go on fighting until they wear each other out, though it may take years. While they cut each other's throats, we can enjoy relative peace. Machiavelli could not have put it better, without a glimmer of concern for the fate of millions of victims, in a land in ruins. But as the old maxim says, abusus non tollit usum.