Two and half years into the Syrian civil war, with 93,000 confirmed deaths and counting, more than 5 million displaced civilians (that’s 25 percent of the entire population) and evidence of chemical weapons’ use, Western reluctance to intervene is still driven by our inability to decide who, among the contenders, is worse.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has made up his mind–a victory by the Sunni Salafists, which include Chechen fighters, is the worst-case scenario. He thus sought to leverage Western discomfort yesterday at the G-8 in Northern Ireland by highlighting their savagery, referring to an act of cannibalism filmed on YouTube by what appears to be a rebel fighter, and then asking, rhetorically, “Are these the people you want to support?”
He has a point–and so does the West when it wishes to remove a regime whose conduct does not fare any better.
Given the choice, then, it is remarkable that a third option–taking chemical weapons out of the equation–still has not emerged in the policy debates. After all, at least from a Western point of view, the possibility of an al-Qaeda/Muslim Brotherhood victory should not be that attractive when one considers that the new rulers will quickly get their hands on the entire Syrian arsenal of both conventional and non-conventional weapons.
President Obama and Mr. Putin could only agree that the best way to avoid a superpower proxy war through escalation is by pushing both sides to a negotiated settlement. As for Western leaders, their anxiety about the rebels might find a way out if chemical weapons could be neutralized. Whether that is militarily feasible is an open question–but certainly one worth asking.