When, back in August, the Assad regime in Syria killed hundreds of civilians in a sarin gas attack on the suburbs of Damascus, it seemed hard to believe that the crisis could get any worse. Within hours of the rocket attacks on eastern districts of the city, dozens of videos had been posted online showing in appalling detail the final convulsions of the victims, who included a large number of women and children.
The images of the distraught and the dying were every bit as harrowing as the beheading videos David Cameron is trying to get banned from Facebook. After two years of largely impotent activity by the West, it seemed that world leaders would at last be galvanised to hold President Bashar al-Assad to account for the worst chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein’s mass murder of Kurds in Halabja in 1988.
In London, Mr Cameron called an emergency session of Parliament to authorise military action, while in Washington President Barack Obama was persuaded to abandon briefly his non-confrontational posture and order the Pentagon to draw up a target list for air strikes against key regime compounds, which were scheduled to take place on the night of September 1.
In the end Mr Obama aborted the mission after the Commons vetoed the use of military force, and the threat of retaliation quickly receded, not least because the Russians wrested control of the diplomatic initiative at the United Nations. Consequently, the attempt to punish Assad for killing his own people mutated into a UN-led undertaking to dismantle Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons. In short, Assad was allowed to escape scot-free.
The effects of Assad’s unexpected reprieve are today clearly visible in the new-found swagger that is to be found in the Syrian tyrant’s step. For, far from being cowed by the events of late August, he exudes an aura of self-confidence that flies in the face of the conclusion reached at yesterday’s summit in London of Western and Arab powers – including members of the Syrian opposition – that “Assad will play no role in the future government of Syria”.
To judge by the way Assad has been conducting himself in recent weeks, this smacks more of wishful thinking on the part of William Hague and the other foreign ministers who attended yesterday’s meeting than of a solution that is likely to generate much traction in Damascus.
In a recent interview with the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, for example, Assad went so far as to suggest he should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for agreeing to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile – hardly the musings of a man contemplating his own political demise. Indeed, he went on to explain that, because the weapons had lost their effectiveness as well as their deterrent effect on Israel (which now has countermeasures in place to deal with them), he had no regrets about inviting teams of UN specialists into the country to render them harmless. So far as Assad is concerned, he has traded in his WMD for the far greater prize of removing “the threat of aggression” by the US and its European allies.
And if the Syrian dictator’s self-assurance is bad news for Mr Hague and all the other world leaders who believe he is no longer relevant to Syria’s future destiny, it has even worse consequences for the country’s long-suffering population who are on the receiving end of the regime’s genocidal drive to end the conflict in its favour.
In the past few weeks this has resulted in Syrian war planes resuming bombing raids on urban areas, while ground forces have begun starving pockets of resistance in the Damascus suburbs into submission. Just a few hundred miles from some of Europe’s most popular tourist attractions on the Turkish coast, imams in Syria have issued fatwas allowing families to eat cats and dogs to alleviate their hunger.
And to ensure starving civilians are dissuaded from straying far beyond the confines of the blockades, Assad’s snipers are said to be taking pot-shots at pregnant women, deliberately shooting them through the uterus. What the Assad regime failed to achieve by deploying weapons of mass destruction it clearly hopes will now be accomplished through the imposition of mass starvation.
Nor are the consequences of the Assad revival confined to Syria. The knock-on effects of its sectarian Sunni-Shia conflict have spread into Iraq, where al-Qaeda suicide bombers are blamed for the recent wave of attacks against Shia districts, which have included the bombing of mosques. Iraq is suffering its worst outbreak of violence since the height of the anti-American insurgency in 2006.
Iraq is now firmly established as the world’s second-largest oil producer and should be looking forward to a new era of stability and prosperity. Instead the spill-over from the Syrian conflict threatens to drag the country back to the worst days of its own recent spell of sectarian strife.
With the very real prospect of a regional escalation in the conflict, it is little wonder that the Western powers are desperate to devise a new formula for bringing the bloodshed to an end. As Mr Hague conceded at the opening of yesterday’s summit: “The longer this conflict goes on, the more sectarian it becomes, the more extremists are able to take hold.”
And given that there is now little prospect of the West taking military action in Syria, reviving the moribund Geneva peace talks is the only viable option Western policymakers have left for ending the violence.
But if Mr Hague and the other members of the “Friends of Syria” group are serious about negotiating a deal, excluding Assad from any future settlement is not necessarily the best way to go about it – not least because it ignores the fact that, as things stand, he is winning the war.
From the conflict’s outset, the West has dallied with the idea of backing the Syrian opposition’s attempts to seize control of Damascus, with some of the more gung-ho members of our National Security Council advocating that Britain take military action to support their efforts.
But deep divisions within the rebel ranks, and the unwelcome growth in the influence of al-Qaeda and other Islamist militant groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, mean that there is now little appetite in Western capitals for such action. Indeed, the level of discord within the opposition ranks is such that there are concerns that the moderate Syrian National Council will boycott the Geneva talks – assuming they actually take place. And even if the SNC does turn up, its insistence that Assad can play no part in a transitional government – a position that Mr Hague wholeheartedly supports – suggests there is little prospect of success.
Surely, given the unwitting role the West has played in enhancing Assad’s survival prospects, a more realistic approach would be for Western leaders to accept that Assad has the upper hand and act accordingly.
Unpalatable as it might seem after so much blood has been spilt, the stark truth is that, so far as the West’s long-term interests are concerned, it would be better to have a stable Syria with Assad in charge than have the country descend into a lawless, ungovernable state such as Libya where Islamist terror cells flourish with impunity.
Not that long ago British foreign policy was conducted on the basis of realpolitik, when any action we took on the world stage was determined as much by its impact on our own national interests as those of the country concerned.
For decades, before Syria’s brutal descent into sectarian strife, the West tolerated the Assad dynasty because there was no alternative, and Damascus posed no tangible threat to our interests. And, assuming the conflict continues along its present course, it is perfectly feasible that we may find ourselves having to do so again. We have dealt with Assad in the past and, if it means ending the terrible bloodshed in Syria, we must do so again.
Con Coughlin is an expert on international terrorism and the Middle East.