Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Syria: Like it or not, we’ll have to talk to Bashar al-Assad

When, back in August, the Assad regime in Syria killed hundreds of civilians in a sarin gas attack on the suburbs of Damascus, it seemed hard to believe that the crisis could get any worse. Within hours of the rocket attacks on eastern districts of the city, dozens of videos had been posted online showing in appalling detail the final convulsions of the victims, who included a large number of women and children.

The images of the distraught and the dying were every bit as harrowing as the beheading videos David Cameron is trying to get banned from Facebook. After two years of largely impotent activity by the West, it seemed that world leaders would at last be galvanised to hold President Bashar al-Assad to account for the worst chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein's mass murder of Kurds in Halabja in 1988.

In London, Mr Cameron called an emergency session of Parliament to authorise military action, while in Washington President Barack Obama was persuaded to abandon briefly his non-confrontational posture and order the Pentagon to draw up a target list for air strikes against key regime compounds, which were scheduled to take place on the night of September 1.

In the end Mr Obama aborted the mission after the Commons vetoed the use of military force, and the threat of retaliation quickly receded, not least because the Russians wrested control of the diplomatic initiative at the United Nations. Consequently, the attempt to punish Assad for killing his own people mutated into a UN-led undertaking to dismantle Syria's stockpiles of chemical weapons. In short, Assad was allowed to escape scot-free.

The effects of Assad's unexpected reprieve are today clearly visible in the new-found swagger that is to be found in the Syrian tyrant's step. For, far from being cowed by the events of late August, he exudes an aura of self-confidence that flies in the face of the conclusion reached at yesterday's summit in London of Western and Arab powers – including members of the Syrian opposition – that "Assad will play no role in the future government of Syria".
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