The Syria talks seems to assume that bombing or turning a blind eye to atrocities are our only two choices. That, obviously, isn’t true.
The best interim solution could be a UN-monitored ceasefire as briefly occurred under the Kofi Annan plan in 2012. All sides are dependent on outside backers, and even those who most want to fight need weapons, ammunition and money. Heavy pressure could be put on them to agree to a peace conference and a temporary ceasefire.
This would be a Lebanese-style truce – unsatisfactory but better than full-scale war. A peace conference on this basis could be the political and diplomatic counterpart to the limited US military strike President Obama is contemplating. In practice there has been a stalemate in most of Syria for the last year. If the Syrian army did use poison gas, it shows it does not have the strength to retake even the inner rebel-held suburbs of Damascus. It is better therefore for the battle lines to be frozen under some form of UN supervision. Long-term solutions will only begin to be feasible when Syrians are no longer at the mercy of what Northern Ireland politicians used to call “the politics of the last atrocity”.
And it isn’t even a question of “IF” the administration should find another option. Because the horrors of Bush’s term in office are still so fresh – we have no choice but to find a third way.
What is curious about the past week is the extent to which so many, especially the media and the British Government, misjudged the continuing rawness of the wounds inflicted by the Iraq war. I was in Baghdad for much of the conflict but I was always struck on returning to Britain by the lasting sense of outrage over the decision to go to war expressed even by the most conservative and non-political. As with the Munich Agreement in 1938, it has entered a deep layer of British historic memory, perhaps because people feel they were not only misled but lied to by their own government.
The parliamentary vote and opinion polls show that British governments have exhausted whatever capital of public trust they possessed when it comes to military ventures in the Middle East. Intelligence reports confirming that Assad used chemical weapons simply jog memories of past deceptions such as the “dodgy dossier” of 2003. Credibility lost then has never been regained.