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As Syria’s civil war relentlessly escalates, the dilemma over how to respond becomes ever more acute. Three crucial developments now seem to be causing every country to look again at their approach.1) Events on the ground are accelerating. The rebels are making further advances, striking within Damascus itself and closing the city’s international airport for a few days. They have also been capturing air force bases, reducing the regime’s key military advantage, namely its ability to send jet fighters and helicopter gunships to pound its enemies. Week by week, the rebels grow stronger and President Bashar al-Assad becomes a little weaker.
2) The rebels are becoming more religious and more radical, even as they grow stronger. Jabhat al-Nusra, a new group which the US believes to be an offshoot of “al-Qaeda in Iraq” is emerging as one of the most capable rebel factions. Its fighters are believed to have been instrumental in the capture of Sheik Suleiman military base near Aleppo on Tuesday, the latest defeat for Assad’s forces.
3) The possibility that the regime might resort to using chemical weapons. If Syria’s stockpile of poison gas has any military rationale, it must surely be to save the regime from certain destruction. The moment of Assad’s downfall could be drawing near. If so, that would be the moment for him to strike the biggest blow of all against his enemies – at least in theory. But in reality, it would never be rational for him to use chemical weapons: this would only guarantee a US-led intervention that would certainly finish him off. If Assad is concerned for his own survival, he would not use these weapons under any circumstances. But no one can be certain that he is still in control, nor that local commanders in direct charge of chemical weapons are calm and rational decision-makers.
Because of all of the above, Russia seems to be quietly reappraising its stance. It must be obvious to the Kremlin that Assad’s downfall is all but inevitable. Russia is not exactly sentimental: Moscow knows that it makes no sense to back a certain loser. President Vladimir Putin has pointedly said that Russia is not a “lawyer for the Syrian regime”.
Meanwhile, Western and regional governments are deeply worried by the consequences of Syria’s explosion. I say “explosion” because the consequences of this tragic conflict are spreading beyond the country’s borders. Many hundreds of thousands of refugees have entered neighbouring countries and, in the case of Lebanon, fighting has already taken place between pro and anti-Assad factions.
In particular, the West and its regional allies worry about chemical weapons going loose and the steady radicalisation of the rebels. So they are reappraising their own policies, at least to keep every option open. Hence Britain’s successful push to ensure the European Union arms embargo on Syria was only renewed for three months instead of 12. This prohibition will expire at the end of February. By then, Britain and the rest of the EU will have to decide whether to extend the embargo, water it down – or abandon it altogether.
In the best of all worlds, Assad would now leave the country for a safe refuge, probably in Russia, and hand over to another figure – conceivably the Sunni vice-president, Farouk al-Shara. This would allow the birth of a transitional government to end the war, pending national elections. But the Gordian knot so expertly fashioned by Assad’s regime has done nothing but tighten since this conflict began almost two years ago. There is no sign of anyone cutting it yet.