As the world edges towards a peace conference on Syria, three ideas about the west’s role in the conflict are widely accepted. First, that the longer the conflict goes on, the greater the chances of direct or indirect western military intervention. Second, that there is a deep and bitter division between the US and Russia that is making progress much harder. Third, that the Syrian civil war is dominating western thinking on the Middle East. Few people publicly dispute these propositions. And yet they are all distinctly questionable (my emphasis).
Western inhibitions about intervention are driven not just by the debacle in Iraq but by the "success" in Libya:
...faith in the west’s ability to pick democratic winners among rebel forces has been weakened by the continuing deterioration of the situation in Libya. Although Libya has been chalked up as a successful western intervention, the aftermath has not been pretty. Large parts of the country are lawless. And in the cities, says one western official, “the jihadists are holding a gun to the head of the democrats”. The pro-interventionists counter that a failure to mount a humanitarian intervention in Syria would stoke the anti-western sentiment that fuels terrorism. But counter-terrorism officials are more cynical, arguing that any western intervention in Syria, whatever the motive, is liable to encourage terrorist “blowback” into our own societies.
This growing fear of the rise of violent Islamism across the Middle East means the divisions between the Russian and US positions are now less stark. The high point of western indignation probably came in February 2012, when Hillary Clinton, then US secretary of state, called Russia’s position on Syria “despicable”. Even now, US and EU officials find plenty to dislike about Moscow’s support for the Assad regime, ascribing it to paranoia about western intentions or to the Kremlin’s desire to keep a naval base in the region. Yet behind the scenes, there is also recognition that Russian warnings about jihadism have merit. “The Russians kept telling us we were naive,” says one western minister, “and maybe we were.”
A question as convoluted as whether and how to support which factions in Syria is the effect of any action -- or inaction -- on Iran and its nuclear program. Rachman briefly grazes the argument advanced in today's New York Times by Iran expert Ray Takeyh that the U.S. can only convince Iran that it means business with regard to its nuclear program by effectively invading Syria (an argument that struck me as ridiculous in a swallow-the-spider-to-catch-the-fly kind of way) before balancing it with an equally disturbing counter-suggestion that the U.S. should keep its powder dry to hit Iran. (Rachman himself has elsewhere approvingly voiced expectations that Obama will refrain both from attacking Iran and from intervening heavy-handedly in Syria, but in this piece he limits himself to reporting various parties' points of view.)
It's no compliment to any of the players on Rachman's scorecard to say that they're engaged in multi-dimensional chess.There's no suggestion that anyone is playing particularly well -- only that the game is perhaps insolubly complex.