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Johannesburg - On the vexing Syrian question, the unhelpful Mercutio position seems the most appropriate: “A plague on both your houses.” Or all your houses.
Many analysts and politicians have refrained from offering opinions on whether the US and its allies should strike Syria militarily without a UN Security Council vote. That’s understandable because the dilemma is so acute.
But certainly let us start by visiting a plague on President Bashar al-Assad for killing over a thousand of his people with sarin gas. If he did.
The evidence brought by US President Barack Obama may be strong but it is not yet quite convincing enough, given the consequences.
But even if he didn’t deploy chemical weapons, a plague on Assad anyway.
His brutality against what were at first unarmed protesters is already a war crime and has given credence to the accusation that he deployed the deadly gas.
And a plague on his rebel enemies, or at least the al-Qaeda linked component of them.
Their brutality in this conflict – and in others – has also lent credibility to the counter-claims by Russia and others, that they were in fact the ones who fired the chemical weapons, to draw the US and others into the war.
And a plague on Russia too for its support for Assad’s regime, which President Vladimir Putin has clothed in high multilateral principles but which is just plain self-interest, to prop up a military ally and to stick it to the US and the West.
A plague too on most of the countries shouting from the sidelines, including South Africa.
Some Western diplomats fault Pretoria on this and similar issues for being overly fastidious about procedures, for insisting on a UN Security Council resolution approving action against Assad, even when they know Russia would veto it.
South Africa’s real motive, one suspects, is solidarity with Russia in the geo-strategic standoff with Washington.
If South Africa is such a stickler for the rules, why did it send troops into the Central African Republic without a UN Security Council – or any other – resolution?
A plague too on some US officials. Like the deputy national security adviser who reassured America on CNN that if Obama got the go-ahead from Congress to strike at Syria, there would definitely be no US boots on the ground “and no war”.
No war for US troops, perhaps. But how would one explain that to those on the receiving end of the missiles?
Of all those players in this ugly drama upon whom a modern Mercutio might wish to visit a plague, perhaps the least deserving would, after all, be Obama.
Though many critics, not least in South Africa, have had the usual knee-jerk reaction, that this is just another instance of US imperialism, Obama seems, on the contrary, to be caught in a genuine dilemma.
The man elected partly for his opposition to the Iraq war, really does not seem to be a warmonger.
This is a real damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t dilemma. If the US and its allies do nothing, that might well, as Obama has said, encourage Assad, and others of his ilk, to use weapons of mass destruction again.
Having drawn the red line against Assad’s use of chemical weapons last year, the credibility of the US as the world’s policeman would be fatally imperilled.
But if he launches those missiles, against military targets, many of which Assad will no doubt have conveniently hidden near mosques and hospitals, he will inevitably inflict civilian casualties, adding more bodies of young children to those killed silently in their sleep on August 21.
And possibly triggering a chain reaction of unpredictable consequences for what is already a tinder-box region.
As I said to a US diplomat this week: “I’m glad I’m not the US President.”
To which he reassuringly replied: “Don’t worry, you’re not being considered for the job.”
We hope you know what you’re doing, Mr President.
* Peter Fabricius is foreign editor of Independent Newspapers.
** The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.