Is the Syrian war an unwinnable dilemma?

A dilemma is by its very nature a choice between evils, and that is what now faces other countries over the use of poison gas in Syria.

A dilemma is by its very nature a choice between evils, and that is what now faces other countries over the use of poison gas in Syria. All the options may be “on the table,” but none of them are good.

Nobody denies poison gas was used in rebel-held parts of Damascus on Aug. 21 — not even the Syrian government. As many as 1,000 civilians may have been killed. That’s a whole week’s normal death toll in the Syrian civil war in just one day.

After that, however, we run out of facts. The rebels claim the Baathist regime was responsible, while the Syrian government says the rebels did it themselves in the hope of triggering foreign military intervention. Sending United Nations inspectors will not settle that argument: the gas must have come from government stocks but that doesn’t mean the regime did it.

The rebels have not overrun any of the known storage sites for Syrian chemical weapons but they could have secret supporters inside those sites who smuggled some out to them. If you apply the old test of “who benefits?” the rebels, who are losing ground, have a strong incentive to get the Assad regime blamed for using illegal weapons.

If that gets the United States and other western powers to impose a no-fly zone, or bomb the regime’s military bases, it helps the rebel cause. So maybe they acted to provide the necessary “evidence.” Some of them are certainly ruthless enough.

The regime is certainly ruthless enough to use chemical weapons and it actually owns them but it is manifestly not to its advantage to do so. President Bashar al-Assad’s troops are winning the war without them and the last thing he needs is foreign military intervention.

On the other hand, armies and regimes have done exceptionally stupid things in the past, particularly when they are isolated and under great pressure. The emerging consensus among western governments is that Assad was responsible, however stupid that seems. What should be done about it?

US military intervention is unlikely to lead to the outcome American foreign policy really desires: the preservation of Syria’s existing secular state, with a change of leadership at the top. If Assad is overthrown, he’ll probably pull the whole edifice down with him. If the rebels win, Islamist radicals will take over. So if a western military intervention is bound to end in tears, why not just skip it?

Because chemical weapons are classed as “weapons of mass destruction” and there is an international treaty banning their use.

If you let Assad get away with this, goes the argument, he will have breached an important international taboo on the use of WMD. Well, not really.

Biological weapons (“germ warfare”) are truly horrifying weapons of mass destruction, banned by treaty and nobody has ever used them. Nuclear weapons can kill by the billions; they have never been banned but they haven’t been used in war for 68 years now. Poison gas, however, is not really a weapon of mass destruction at all.

Napalm, fuel-air explosives and cluster bombs are just as nasty as poison gas and perfectly legal. The historic ban on poison gas is a valuable deterrent but it has survived some previous breaches and preventing this one is not worth a war.

Especially if it is, from the point of view of the potential interveners, an unwinnable war.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.