The recent gas attack on the eastern suburbs of Damascus has had a strange effect. It has poisoned the political atmosphere in both Britain and the United States of America and precipitated a personal crisis for the incumb-ent heads of government. After pleading with the US on the immediacy of a military response against the Bashar al-Assad regime, the David Cameron government has had to eat crow. The British parliament has refused to endorse Mr Cameron’s war-mongering on what it found to be insubstantial evidence. This snub to the British premier is supposed to have got the US president thinking about the constitutionality of his decision regarding a military attack. In any case, he would have been spending sleepless nights over how best to respond to the Syrian provocation. Having committed himself to a “red line” in Syria, Barack Obama now finds it impossible to look past a chemical attack that has killed more than a thousand. But the geo-strategic repercussions of a military attack, no matter how limited, are likely to be so enormous that it is but natural for him to have second thoughts, and may be even third and fourth.
Unlike in the case of Libya, where an attack was launched even before the momentum for it had built up, the political build-up in Syria has been gradual and more fractious. Military action in Syria will force the US into a confrontation with Russia, apart from opening hostilities with Iran. It would also split the region along sectarian fault-lines that would invariably lead to more radicalization and complication in the US’s war on terror. There is also the factor of further endangering Syria’s civilian population through imprecise aerial attacks. In spite of authorizing a military strike on Syria, Mr Obama has, in a quick rebound, sought to buy time by referring the matter to the US Congress. The move has not gone down well with his team, which is baying for action, and has prompted the Assad government to pan the action as the beginning of the American “retreat”. It is unlikely that Mr Obama does not know the risks. But the fact that he is willing to pause, even at the risk of personal humiliation, is commendable. This may be the last opportunity to seize peace for Syria. Let the world powers, including India if it considers itself to be one, not miss this opportunity to push open all channels for negotiation.