When Cameron said yesterday that the Iraq invasion had poisoned the “well of public opinion” regarding action in Syria, he was right. But it had also retrospectively poisoned another well, that of the invasion of Afghanistan and the toppling of the Taleban. Most people today forget that public sentiment had little sympathy for the Taleban government of Afghanistan in 2001 and little time for conspiracy theorists demanding hard evidence that Osama Bin Laden had carried out the 9/11 attacks in New York. What happened in the British Parliament is what should have happened when Bush said he wanted to invade Iraq in 2003, it should not have happened yesterday.
Old Lessons: Past the Shadow of Iraq
The world needs to move beyond the Iraq invasion paradigm when speaking about humanitarian intervention, because a lot had been learnt during the post-cold war years, especially in Bosnia and Kosovo. One of the key lessons that should never have been forgotten was never to rely on the Russians. In spite of overwhelming evidence of mass murder, concentration camps and ethnic cleansing, the Russians backed their Serb allies to the hilt and foiled every attempt to bring the killing to a halt. Again, we should remember that this was a pre-9/11 world where the United States was not as demonized as it is now, and where public discourse was about how to address these new issues in a post-Cold War world. They mistakenly believed that Russia would be a friend, and they were wrong. Today Putin's Russia has played the spoiler for every attempt to bring Assad to heel, exactly as they did in the Balkans, and as with the Balkans, it took a decision to act independently and decisively in favour of what is right. If Russia wants to stop this then they can send their armies to Syria to fight the Americans, something they have already said that they will not do. In effect the US has called Putin's bluff.
The Dilemma in Doing what is Right
Now that the United States will act, the question is what will they do, and how will this impact the conflict in Syria? We know that the action is going to be limited and that the scope is to punish Assad in such a way as to deter him from using these chemical weapons again. Can they do it? Perhaps, but there is also the risk that the Assad regime will capitalise on the deaths of civilians, especially since his regime will be hiding behind them. There are tens of thousands of Syrian prisoners of conscience in Assad's prisons, and rumours amongst Syrians are already spreading that he has placed these prisoners in key locations that might be attacked. This, however, will unlikely factor much in the decisions of the United States. Obama, as Commander in Chief of his country's armed forces, will likely have already taken the heavy decision that what is at stake here is the lives of tens of thousands more people who are at risk of death by chemical weapons and that it is intolerable to allow this precedent to take root. As terrifying as this prospect is, he is right. Syrians cannot afford to continue being gassed by Assad's nerve agents and other chemical weapons. The catastrophic death toll inflicted on them since the start of the revolution alone shows that the cost of not punishing Assad is far more terrifying.
What Does this Mean for Syria?
But if the action is going to be limited to stopping Assad from using chemical weapons, that still leaves him in charge of a killing machine that is raining death on the country. My view is that the blow inflicted on him will be just enough to give the rebels the strategic advantage to accept political negotiations – with the West hoping this would lead to the revival of the much ridiculed Geneva 2 talks. The limited scope of this action will also show the Russians that the West means business, and shake Assad's confidence just enough to make him realise that he is already on borrowed time. Whilst far from ideal, this might be the best deal that Syrians will get from the United States. This means that the Syrian opposition must drop its traditional stubbornness and be prepared to appear ready for concessions even if they know Assad will never sit and negotiate.
In spite of the West's hopes of reviving the political process, there is a deep rooted understanding amongst many Syrians that negotiations are a dead end. It is perfectly clear at this stage that the return of peace to Syria, however imperfectly, will destroy the Assad regime faster than any munitions, and for that this peace will never be realised until his last bunker is surrounded and destroyed. Syrians on the ground, especially those who have borne the brunt of Assad's killing machine, know they are dealing with an ideology that will never surrender and never negotiate. They have already tasted his wrath in the eighties, and will now do everything in their power to ensure that neither he nor any other Alawite will rule over them again. The Alawites have been just as much a victim of Assadism as their Sunni brethren, but unfortunately the sectarian cat is out of the bag and it is doubtful we will see an end to this in our generation's life time.
In spite of Assad's propaganda, this revolution is not a second round in his father's vendetta with the Muslim Brotherhood, and whilst the opposition is overwhelmingly Sunni, many are not involved with the Brotherhood and will therefore not be as ideologically biased against Alawites or other minorities. This part of the opposition have been marginalised by both Assad's allies and the Western media, but in the wake of an albeit slow and painful victory over Assad, it is these people who will have a better chance at leading national reconciliation.
A Final Word on Iran and Hezbullah
Whilst Russia will not go to war over Syria, Iran and Hezbullah will. If they fight within Syria then they will be the opposition's problem, but if they retaliate against the United States or Israel, then they will be somebody else's. There is not much more to say about this from a Syrian perspective. Of particular note is that Hezbullah is not trumpeting its presence in Syria the way it was before the fall of Qusair in Homs. A few months ago the conquest of Qusair was being portrayed by Hezbullah as a turning of the tide and a fulfilment of their oath of loyalty for Assad, in appreciation of his significant support. Today that victory seems a distant memory. In fact the only thing their presence in Syria tells us is that Assad does not have the means to defeat the Syrian rebels alone and his use of chemical weapons near Damascus could also be another sign of this desperation. It is here that a punitive strikes against Assad for his war crimes could be the straw that breaks the camel's back – unless they are done recklessly and without regard for civilian life. Amnesty International have already published an excellent set of guidelines and decision makers in Washington and the Pentagon would do well to study these and apply them.
What the US strikes against Assad are definitely not is a silver magic bullet for the opposition, but with proper planning and wise, creative politiking it could just be enough to crack through this bloody and vicious stalemate. There is still no guarantee that they will even be the ones governing if and when Assad's fingers are pried off of Syria. The only thing that is certain is that whilst the road ahead for all Syrians remains extremely dangerous and difficult, the only thing worse than carrying on would be to give up.