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Syria: take a deep breath

12 Nov 2012 - 10:07

The point of no return has been reached many times now and every time it does, someone in Syria presses down hard on the accelerator. First, it was the sniper fire against peaceful protesters. Then came mortar fire into rebellious suburbs and the onset of roaming militia. Since August there has been regular aerial bombardment of urban areas, full-scale war in Aleppo, the country's second city, and a popular exodus that on Friday reached its greatest ever intensity: 11,000 people fled Syria in the space of a day.

At every such point, with the Syrian war machine revving, the international community has betrayed its name and done next to nothing. Perhaps it would be wise to expect it do the same on this occasion. Schisms on the Syria issue can be found at just about every order of power and space, making any diplomatic body movement liable to trigger some trip-wire or other. The United States and Europe are estranged from Russia and China, the Sunni parts of the Arab worlds from Shiite Iran, the regime of President Assad from the opposition, the political opposition from the armed opposition, and the armed opposition between its multiple Islamist genres, sponsors, tactics and aims.

Who would wish to sink deeper into this tenebrous mire? Afghanistan and Iraq fresh in the mind, Western states have pretty much decided that they will not risk knocking down a single domino. No one could ever expect Obama to wager his re-election chances on a Navy Seal team in Damascus; even fewer could imagine Britain and France stirring in the economic twilight. So be it. The decision to sink into Syria might just have to be made for them.

The subtext of the Syrian war since July, particularly since the assassination of President Assad's military and security elite and the conflagration of Aleppo, has been the ignition of ever more potential fronts with neighbours; and thus, given the Middle East, with the rest of the world. Outsourcing a dirty war to Syria's armed men has until now kept military armchairs warm in the West and the Gulf states. But a whole other state of preparedness is being summoned by the ways in which civil war is spreading outwards.

A new provocation appears each week. Indeed, the last month and a half almost amounts to a series of public health warnings for a sedentary and self-protective UN Security Council. The Turkish army has bombarded Syria's troops close to the border. The man who detected a Syrian plot to cause havoc in Lebanon was assassinated in broad daylight in Beirut. Israel yesterday returned fire on the Golan Heights.

In isolation, each of these may appear a manageable incident. Especially if President Assad guarantees that any errant ammunition had in fact been intended solely for use on his fellow Syrians. But the abiding impression is that the curve of escalation is primed to shoot upwards at some point on the map. The most likely candidates remain the Turkish border and the Lebanese capital. Bets are being taken on Israel. And rippling out from each of these are waves of complication and entanglement that would draw in, for the case of Turkey alone, the entire NATO alliance and, through transnational osmosis, the Kurdish populations living in four countries.

Whichever way this conflict now heads, it seems harder with each day to see how some international call to arms can be avoided. Chemical weapons, Iranian arms trafficking, Jihadist arms groups, sectarian secessions: it makes a cocktail that would have made George W. Bush's security nucleus blush with the first passions of youth. For slightly more contemplative governments, including those in the United States, Britain and France, it suggests that the vague longing for peace, or Prime Minister Cameron's polite request this week for Assad to abandon ship in the middle of total war, will at some stage be overtaken by circumstance. This would be no more than history in repeat: it happened in the Balkans, and again in Afghanistan.

The question then arises as to which of the red lines drawn up during the Syrian conflict will have to be traversed. None of them makes for comfortable reading in Europe or the United States. A first set of concessions would be needed to assure Russian and Chinese support for any negotiated end to the Assad regime: it is hard to imagine that the geopolitical cost will be insignificant. Bringing Iran on board would require an even greater reservoir of sufferance, especially if leniency towards the country's nuclear programme is Tehran's asking price.

At the same time, the Syrian implosion and humanitarian crisis -an estimated four million Syrians will need aid by next year, the UN has warned - might make deeper military involvement a necessity. Unfortunately, each step here seems to lead Western powers deeper into the abyss. Leaving matters to an increasingly radical Jihadist fringe would not bode well for Syria's future transition. Leaving it to Turkey may seem preferable, but for the probable Arab and Kurdish backlash. Leaving it to the Arab states would invite a snake's pit of competing interests. Doing it oneself, alas, would simply invite the West to extend its graveyard of young soldiers to a third Muslim country in a decade.

The story from here onwards is not totally black. At the grassroots level, in parts of Syria where Assad's state has been ousted, Local Coordinating Committees are doing an extraordinary task in keeping basic government going. But between these oases of a new country and the outside world is a tremendous thicket of power-gaming and war-mongering. The West should take a very deep breath.