This article was originally published on Salon.com on May 10, 2013
Watching Syria is like looking through a kaleidoscope. The picture seems to change dramatically in response to the slightest jolt, but the components remain the same. The past week has seen lots of jolts, but no real change in the elements that make up the sad picture.
Inside Syria, the regime’s forces have started an ethnic cleansing campaign in the west intended to clear Sunnis from areas its Alawite supporters want to secure for themselves. The regime has also successfully pushed south toward the Jordanian border. In much of the rest of the country, there is lots of fighting but only marginal changes in the confrontation lines, which run through many urban areas, or between the urban centers and the countryside. Almost 7 million Syrians are now thought to need humanitarian assistance. The number could rise dramatically during the rest of the year.
Secretary Kerry’s visit to Moscow this week revived, once again, hopes for a negotiated settlement. He and the Russians agreed to try to convene a conference, even before the end of the month, that would include both the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime. The prospect of this conference will relieve President Obama of any need for a quick decision on unilateral action in Syria, since it would hardly be appropriate to preempt the conference. That is likely what both the Russians and the Americans wanted: more time.
Pressure had been building for action, including possible direct American shipment of arms to the opposition, safe areas for displaced people, a no-fly zone, or an attack on Syria’s air force and missiles, which are being used against civilians. Evidence that the regime has used chemical weapons put President Obama on the spot, as he has several times said that crossing this red line would change his calculus. American credibility, some thought, was at stake.
The ink was barely dry on the allegation of chemical weapons use when Carla Del Ponte, a Swiss member of a U.N. human rights inquiry for Libya, suggested that she knew of evidence that chemical weapons were used by the opposition rather than the regime. This allegation has little credibility, not only because of the technical difficulties involved but also because Del Ponte has a record of sensational allegations that are difficult to prove (or disprove).