The UK, France and maybe America are edging towards a policy of arming Syria’s “moderate” rebels if planned peace talks with the Assad regime don’t produce a breakthrough. The idea would be to tilt the civil war in favour of moderates and against both Assad’s Iranian-backed regime and al Qaeda-style jihadists. But the scheme, while superficially attractive, is fraught with risk.
The West’s three nuclear powers clearly don’t have much appetite for intervention in Syria. Nobody is pushing for an Iraqi or Afghan-style invasion. There is also precious little desire to impose a Libyan-style no-fly zone – not least because it would be impossible to get United Nations’ authority for such a policy given Russia’s steadfast support for the Assad regime.
The West is anyway struggling to clarify why it should get involved in this increasingly grisly sectarian war. Syria doesn’t have much oil or gas, unlike Libya and Iraq. Nor is Assad threatening the West with al Qaeda-style attacks. It could even be argued, on the basis of realpolitik, that it could be in the West’s interests if Sunni jihadists and the Iran-Assad-Hezbollah Shi’ite axis exhausted each other in an orgy of mutual destruction.
There are, though, two reasons why the West might not wish to stand by as the death toll, already over 80,000, climbs ever higher. First, civil wars have a tendency to drag on. The one in neighbouring Lebanon, where I spent last week, lasted 15 years and left over 120,000 dead. Given Syria is about five times Lebanon’s size, a similar rate of killing would result in more than 600,000 deaths. Although humanitarian considerations are rarely the driver of foreign policy, it would be good if Western intervention really could cut the killing of innocent people – admittedly a big “if”.
The second, more hard-headed reason for the West not washing its hands of Syria is concern for spillover effects. There are already signs of Lebanon being sucked into the conflict: Hezbollah-dominated areas have seen rocket attacks and skirmishes with Syrian rebels in recent days.