Syria is just one battlefield in a civil war
The dithering of world leaders feeds those who want to believe the West has lost its mojo, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards
It's a good time to be a ruthless dictator. Keep China and/or Russia onside and you can be sure of a handy veto from the UN Security Council against military intervention. Neither regime gives a damn about human rights in their own countries, let alone yours.
In pursuit of the national interest, China props up North Korea, which it knows is a concentration camp run by a psychotic dynasty, and Russia backs anyone at loggerheads with the US. European leaders deplore your treatment of your people, yet insist that no action should be taken except, yes, through the Security Council. The government of the United Kingdom can be troublesome, but it's no more than a junior ally of the US.
You used to fear that if you tried the patience of the US too far you might meet the same end as Saddam and Gaddafi, but Obama is not Bush. He's happy to drop unmanned drones on faraway places, and he sent Navy Seals after Osama bin Laden, but he has no appetite for big operations. He's pulling out of inherited wars and mostly hates abroad and the dilemmas posed by nasty foreigners.
During Obama's stumbling, sometimes incoherent, press conference on Friday at the end of the G20 meeting in Russia, he said plaintively: "You know, there was a leader of a smaller country who I've spoken to over the last several days who said, you know, 'I don't envy you because I'm a small country and nobody expects me to do anything about chemical weapons around the world. They know I have no capacity to do something.'
"And it's tough because people do look to the United States. And the question for the American people is, is that a responsibility that we're willing to bear?"
According to the most recent polls, fewer than 30 per cent of the American people support military action. Following the disastrous handling of Iraq after a successful invasion, and the intractable mess that is Afghanistan, the world's policeman has come to hate policing, the West has forgotten the 1995 genocide in Rwanda, where non-intervention cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and Obama wishes he hadn't said a year ago apropos military engagement that "a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised".
What's happening in Syria is heart-breaking. Not only are there 100,000 dead, but there are terrible injuries, and of a population of 20 million, two million are refugees swamping Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey and more than four million are displaced internally. Whether Assad or the rebels win or the mutual destruction just continues on, the future is grim.
Syria is not a straightforward war between a dictator and rebels (a minority of whom are fanatical Islamists), but one battlefield in a civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims that could yet engulf the whole of the Middle East. It also, of course, is a proxy in the cold war between Russia and the West.
So at this terrible time, what went on with the most important world leaders in St Petersburg? Dithering, paralysis and confrontation, that's what, giving aid and comfort to Assad and Islamists and all other bad people who want to believe the West has lost its mojo.
Pope Francis says a military solution is "a futile pursuit", and the UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon warns that military action could be illegal and also exacerbate the sorry mess. Only two Western leaders genuinely believe that without a military response Assad and all other dictators will rightly conclude they can henceforward get away with anything.
David Cameron has the guts for intervention, but having mishandled parliament and been betrayed by Ed Miliband's volte-face, he's been stymied. Francois Hollande, the most unpopular French president in living memory, was gung-ho, but has been wrong-footed by Obama's unexpected decision to consult a Congress that mostly despises or is disappointed in him. And Tony Blair is making stirring calls to action, apparently unaware that the dodgy dossier about weapons of mass destruction assembled by his rottweiler Alastair Campbell destroyed public trust in him and his political successors.
Is it Assad who was responsible for the gas attack? There's no section of the rebels that had the capacity to do it, but some analysts suspect Assad's brother Maher, a general and commander of the Republic Guard, who thinks he should be president.
If Obama does nothing, chemical weapons can henceforward be deployed with impunity. If he acts and Assad is toppled, what comes after him could be worse. As Sir Christopher Mayer, British ambassador to Washington during the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, put it: "This decision on what to do next is truly the decision from hell." Assad must be relieved that the Oval Office is occupied by President Hamlet.