Welcome news, apparently, in Obama's announcement today to postpone his decision about how to respond to the chemical attack in Damascus. Because there is no sense in firing a barrage of missiles as a response to the use of chemicals. Perhaps Obama's reason was his not wanting to be in Russia next week during or just after a US-led attack on Russia's ally. Perhaps he was given pause by the UK Commons vote on Friday. Or perhaps he is not so stupid after all, and has listened to wise counsel.
Commentators have been saying how complex this question is. Regarding Syria, they are right. It is a horrendous situation in which there are no easy choices, for Syrians and Syrian families, and for governments around the world. If we are honest, there are no easy answers for Assad either: even if he wanted to step down, the aftermath would likely not be a humanitarian picnic for many Syrians. And I doubt, frankly, he has enough authority to be allowed to step down, even if he wanted to.
But in terms of how Obama might respond to what was clearly a war crime, there are at least some aspects which are much less complicated. Three fairly obvious factors Obama might take into account:
- It's a war crime. Crimes are not punished by lynchings or retributive missile attacks, but by due process. Sometimes that takes a while. Have patience – after all, there's no massive call from US voters to intervene militarily now.
- Attacking one side in a war means you are taking sides. Even a child knows that from the school playground. Either choose a side and support it, or fire an equal or proportional number of missiles at both/all sides. Don't pretend that you can weigh in against the regime, doing signficant damage to its military capability, without having some impact on the course of the war. Or if that is really what you plan to do, don't pretend it's a genuinely meaningful attack. You can't have it both ways.
- This looks like a civil war that is going to last a long time. Lahkdar Brahimi, the UN Secretary General's Special Representative for Syria, says he is reconsidering whether there is any point or value in his post; that he has has no plans currently to go to Syria. He is said to be briefing that he sees no likely openings for a peace process in the short term. If the war is going to last a long time, the international community should recognise its unfortunate inability to pull off some kind of peace in the short term. But it should stop wringing its hands, keep working towards a medium-term solution, and above all focus on limiting the wider impact of the Syrian war (which is already worrying enough in terms of increased violence in Lebanon and Iraq, and instability more widely). Despite the understandable emotional response to the terrible crime that was committed in Damascus by the use of chemical weapons, and especially against children and other non-combatants, geo-political decisons must be based on cold-hearted analysis, underpinned by principles and values, not on passion and certainly not on a sense of disempowerment and frustration. Minimising regional spillovers – which are surely just what Al Qaeda most wants to happen – has to be more important than an immediate retributive/corrective response to the fact that the Assad regime crossed a "red line" (which it anyway crossed several months ago, and nothing was done then, so why now?).
Behind all this there is a much more difficult debate about responsibility and the "responsibility to protect" – which is complicated. Poor people are dying in the US because they have no access to jobs or healthcare, arguably contravening the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Should the international community intervene? Of course not, but I use this example to show how much more nuanced and complex things are than they seem when expressed via the rhetorical devices deployed by the likes of Kerry and Cameron over the past few days.
Assad and others must surely pay the price one day for the crimes they have committed. Let's aim to use due process to hold them to account. In the meantime, the international community must continue to seek ways to bring this war to an end in ways which minimise the suffering of Syrians, and minimise the impact on other people in the region.