During his trip to Near East in March, Barack Obama said: “Once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons [by the Syrian regime] is a game changer”. Our turn to play the game thus.
However, despite recent news, I am not certain the game has changed. Of course, there are important variables that evolve (such as the growing influence of djihadists on Syrian battlefields), but there are no surprises in the Syrian crisis. Indeed, by using chemical weapons, Bashar al-Assad is simply applying one rule of the game: all but one of the moves are allowed to him, resignation. Chemical attacks on the Syrian insurgency will thus surprise no one. Rob Dover, lecturer with the Loughborough University explained it very well in one of his articles:
The penalties for firing don’t appear to be much different to the penalties for not firing, bar some bad press in the history books
And as he puts it in another post:
An estimated 60,000 people have already lost their lives in Syria in the contest over who can rule the space. Very few of these deaths are likely to have been ‘nice’ and it might just be me, but I struggle to see the radical difference or escalatory effect of deaths by unconventional ordnance as opposed to conventional ordnance. If we are going to intervene because of the use of chemical weapons, we should have been intervening before: people were still dying unpleasantly over a political struggle.
The Syrian regime may have crossed a “red line” but the civil war is, in my opinion, unlikely to experience paramount developpements soon. The West’s end remains: the end of the Syrian Regime. Yet its direct means are limited. Indeed, despite narcissistic statements by some self-proclamed international security experts, the Syrian army remains armed by Russia and trained and advised by Iran (even if it is affected by two years of operations against the insurgency). In case of any direct operation against it, the Syrian regime is likely to remember us how many of our fellow citizens live as expatriate in Lebanon or Jordan, that Syria shares a common border with Turkey…
Arming the insurgency remains, apparently, the more efficient solution. This scenario might take time to produce results and it does not get rid of djihadists (nor military operations such as airstrikes or boots on the ground…). We should not be naive: arming the insurgency is a risk. Yet, drawing short-sighted assessments based on the influence of djihadists, like some political leaders do, is as clever as having idealized Tuareg movements in Sahel.
Arming the insurgency should not be done without conditions (and I am sure Western intelligence agencies have been working on these conditions and advised leaders about it). It does not imply giving away heavy weapons to any insurgent group, nor it implies signing a blank cheque to Gulf states who could buy and distribute weapons to insurgent groups whose agenda fits theirs. It will also require important efforts to neutralize these groups. And denying weapon delivery to the Free Syrian Army will not help us gaining its support when our intelligence agencies deal with the djihadist issue in Syria.
Who dares wins said David Stirling. It is our turn to play, let us dare.