The situation in Syria has reached a point of inflexion. Speaking in Abu Dhabi, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel claimed that the American intelligence community has determined “with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.” The statement could be a “game changer,” because it signals the official American perception that Syria may have crossed the red-line set by President Barack Obama that would trigger a shift in Washington’s position towards direct intervention in the Levantine state. The floodgates for western air strikes on Syria are being slowly lifted, reminiscent of Iraq, where false allegations of seepage of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups became the excuse for an illegal and ill-conceived invasion that extinguished hundreds of thousands of lives, destroyed the country’s physical infrastructure and frayed the social fabric of a once prosperous Arab state.
There is a background to the shift in the U.S. position on Syria. After over two years of conflict — conflict that has claimed 70,000 lives — Syria is confronting a military stalemate. Backed by NATO, the Gulf countries and Turkey, the armed Islamist opposition remains fixated to an unachievable military solution to the conflict. On the other side, bolstered by Russia and China, and with its military core united, the government of President Bashar Al Assad has enough firepower to stall the opposition’s advance towards the county’s most important political, economic and military centres of power. With the battle lines hardly shifting, a stronger external military intervention is required if the U.S. and the former European colonial powers wish to accomplish “regime change” in Syria. The alleged use by the regime of chemical weapons, cited by Mr. Hagel, thus becomes an essential building block for a case for war. The pervasive presence of al Qaeda in Syria, led by Jabhat Al Nusra, and the argument that the arsenal of Syrian chemical weapons could fall into the hands of this group imparts urgency for an invasion. After Mr. Hagel’s statement, Syria’s engulfment in a full-scale war is firmly on the radar. While the chemical weapons allegation needs to be credibly and independently probed, a return to the internationally-backed Geneva plan of June 2012, which advocates a political transition based on an intra-Syrian dialogue, without prefacing it with calls for President Assad’s exit, is essential. This is the only way the impending disaster can be averted.