West thinks it can hit targets while staying out of the Syria war. Forget it

The most misleading headline in recent days has been the “War in Syria”, referring to what now appears to be an attack by the West on as-yet unspecified targets.

It is misleading for two reasons. First, the war in Syria has been going for over two years, as local rebels and, at later stages, foreign volunteers, have been sacrificing their lives to remove a bloody and repressive regime. Second, what is being planned in Washington is not a war. The strike on Syria, which is expected to take the form of dozens of cruise missiles and, perhaps, sorties by “stealth” bombers, will be far less than all-out war.

In fact, whatever the long-term results of this strike, it is being calibrated not to topple Assad from his blood-soaked throne. No mechanism is in place to deal with the day after his departure and, as awful as the death-toll in Syria has been, there is no guarantee whatsoever that things will improve once Assad is gone.

The loose coalition of rebel forces was never really united and is already fraying at the edges with secularists fighting Islamists, Kurds and Druze — who are trying to carve out their own autonomous fiefdoms — and Turkey and Saudi Arabia safeguarding their own interests. The West has much less influence on the ground than these players, or Russia and Iran for that matter, and the greatest concern is that any of these nations use the aftershocks of the strikes to their advantage.

The West is trapped in a dilemma of their own making. After announcing that they would not accept the use of chemical weapons against civilians, they have constrained themselves by ruling out deeper military involvement.

The trouble is, the day after the strikes, they will have little, if any, control of developments. It is extremely unlikely that the West will be able to make do with that. The war seems destined to suck them in.

Last updated: 5:45pm, August 29 2013