The situation in Syria is dire. After 20 months of conflict, the war has created a human and economic disaster. Around 40,000 people have been killed, many more injured and hundreds of thousands displaced. All this, now reinforced by concern over Syria's chemical weapons, is creating an upsurge in support for western military intervention, on the grounds that the moment could become the "tipping-point" for Bashar al-Assad's regime.
There is a clear need to assess the risks and probable consequences of such a course, and to examine the prospects for a diplomatic solution. The context for both is the way the Syrian conflict has evolved. Syria's power-elite drew from Tunisia and Egypt the lesson that it had to be ruthless in its repression and offer little in the way of concession. But ever more force only hardened the opposition, and by mid-2012 a rebellion was developing.
The conflict was evolving rapidly into a form of "double-proxy" war that, by involving regional and global actors, hugely complicated the search for a peaceful resolution. In the Middle East, the rebels were increasingly encouraged by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Assad regime was strongly backed by Iran; weapons and training resources flowed in, greatly aided by an "air bridge" that transited Iraq (thanks to Nouri al-Maliki's government in Baghdad, in an act dismaying to the United States.)
Washington and its allies were on the side of the rebels, while the Russians and to an extent the Chinese stood by Damascus. A further complication was the growing presence of Islamist paramilitaries, many of them travelling from elsewhere in the region. They proved particularly effective thanks to their intense commitment and motivation, but also because some had gained combat experience in urban warfare in Iraq.
A new momentum So far, western powers have confined themselves to channelling aid to "acceptable" rebels while trying to prevent Islamist groups from acquiring weaponry. An extension of this stance might initially take the form of supplying the rebels with more effective arms and erecting a "no-fly zone". Both are feasible short-term actions, although the latter could be made more difficult by the presence of 2,000 Russian advisers in Syria.
The supporters of intervention have two cogent arguments: that an even worse humanitarian disaster must be prevented, and that a quick end to Assad's regime will diminish the risk of Islamist influence in a post-Assad Syria. They point to the evident increase in the number of Islamist-linked paramilitaries active in the conflict, with the Jabhat al-Nusra group alone claiming 10,000 fighters. In parallel, the tactics of many rebels have become far harsher now that they have deprived the regime of the near-monopoly of terror it enjoyed in the conflict's early months; this has lost them support among some Syrians with no love for the regime.
These leave three other issues out of consideration. First, any western military action will provoke Tehran into increasing its support of Damascus (which Baghdad may facilitate). Second, the fall of Assad's regime may turn out to be a prolonged process involving even greater loss of innocent life. Third, the wider impact of yet another western intervention in the Middle East may be disastrous.
A different endgame The predicament over Syria remains appalling.. There is, though, one possibility that could avert the worst outcomes: a decision by President Obama's administration to make a very strong effort to achieve negotiated regime change. The west, to put it bluntly, is not in a position to dictate what form Syria's evolving governance might take. It has to recognise that this must principally be decided within Syria – but that the acquiescence of other states in the process will be essential: Russia and Iran, but also Turkey and Egypt.
The lone hopeful element in this scenario is that Obama's re-election gives him room for action. Over Syria – as over Iran and Israel-Palestine– he could in principle follow a more considered approach, avoid the risks of escalating conflict, and seek the best possible solution available in difficult circumstances. Where Damascus is concerned, there is still a chance of some kind of arranged regime change – very tough though it would be to reach. Will that chance be taken? The answer lies mainly in Washington, but not a little too in Moscow and Tehran, and in Ankara and Cairo. The fate of Syria, and more than Syria, is in the balance. [Abridged]