Syria has finally reached a point of no return. About 1,200 people have died in the eastern fringes of Damascus in what appears to be a chemical attack. It is not yet known exactly who perpetrated the massacre. But there are indications that the world is not going to wait for an answer. The attack has been interpreted as an unseemly provocation by the Bashar al-Assad regime that calls for armed intervention. If not an extensive engagement, at least plans of a limited operation from air are already afoot. Although the Syrian government has volunteered to let the site be investigated by the United Nations inspection team, which, strangely, landed in the country only days ago, the United States of America has rejected the offer for coming “too late”. For the US, which has prevaricated on taking action on Syria for so long, the question of timing has suddenly become of utmost importance — more important than verifying whether chemical weapons were used, and if they were, who used them. The reason for this is not difficult to discern. The US is under intense pressure to act. Having announced the use or movement of chemical weapons by the Assad regime as a “red line”, the US cannot be seen to back down from its commitment. It has already earned the ire of its Arab allies, which made no bones about their contempt for the US during the recent crisis in Egypt. France’s flashpoint intervention in Mali has been a humbling experience for the US, and now even Britain seems as willing as France to force matters in Syria. The US’s own successful operation in Serbia in 1999 is being drummed up to help it recover its confidence.
This, of course, is no time to watch quietly from the margins. But is there any guarantee that what is being contemplated by the US and its Western and Arab allies — a plan unlikely to pass muster in the UN security council — will not cause greater suffering to the people in Syria? There is every reason to suspect the Assad regime of having provocatively used chemicals to test the will of its adversaries. But the gas attack could also be the one chance to finally convince the Assad regime’s allies — Russia and China — about the dangers of supporting a morally decrepit government. Without the backing of its allies, the regime could be found to be more pliant than it would be in the face of aerial bombardment.