There is a strong chance that American air forces will be bombing Syria by the weekend. There is also a strong chance that this desperate pitch for peace could again end up embroiling the West in another country's war.
America, Britain and France all stand ready to punish President Assad for a deadly chemical weapons attack last week and there has been much talk in the past couple of days of their 'moral duty' to act, with or without UN backing.
David Cameron yesterday chaired a meeting of the National Security Council, which he said had unanimously backed action against Assad and considered potential strategies. Today he will address MPs who have been summoned from their holidays to debate the possibility of air strikes.
He had hoped that this session would give him the authority to join the American action – but that idea was scuppered by Ed Miliband yesterday afternoon, an event that not only reduced the risk of an immediate war but also demonstrated that Malcolm Tucker's alter ego is alive and well and working at Tory Central Office. Tucker manque brazenly described Miliband as a f****** c*** and a copper-bottomed s***.
Until yesterday the wheels on the bombing bandwagon had been turning ever faster as it hurtled down the hill to conflict, Tony Blair cheering it on from his Mediterranean yacht. When Ban Ki-moon stepped into its path like a latter-day John Lennon chanting 'All we are saying is give peace a chance', he seemed more likely to be mown down than to bring it to a halt. But, amazingly, he did at least manage to slow it down.
UN weapons inspectors have been in Syria since Monday and have examined the site of last week's attack. That they are in the country at all is a result of pressure on President Assad and they have more work to do before they can determine what caused the deaths. They are expected to be ready to report next week.
Many are questioning why, after two years of inaction, it has suddenly become so urgent to attack Syria now, this minute. Russia has mocked the West for behaving like a monkey with a hand grenade. What harm would it do to wait a few days? But until last night, there seemed little hope of convincing anyone in power.
These are serious times and the echoes of Iraq are everywhere – right down to the pleas that UN weapons inspectors be given time to do their job. So what have the papers made of it?
This is not the first time that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, but the attack last Wednesday was in Damascus and Assad's forces were immediately in the frame as the perpetrators. Up to 1,300 people were said to have been killed – many of them children.
The story led the Guardian, Independent, Times and Mirror on Thursday. A photograph of a man leaning over a baby among white-shrouded bodies was the most widely used image, but the Mirror's front was the most dramatic with a photograph of nine dead children who look as though they have been safely tucked up in bed for the night.
The Mail devoted an inside spread to the atrocity, as did the Telegraph, which also found room for it downpage on the front under a three-col picture of a beautiful woman who had had a leg amputated after being knocked down by a New York taxi.
With the sun shining for the bank holiday break – interrupted by flooding on Saturday – there were obviously more pressing concerns for some, but most papers have adopted a serious tone. The Mail, Mirror and the i joined the Times, Guardian and Telegraph in splashing on Syria on Bank Holiday Monday and even the Sun gave it a presence on the front.
The Indie took the conflict off the front on Tuesday, and the Mail pushed it back yesterday, but the Times, Guardian, Telegraph, Mirror and the i have been relentless.
For most of the week no one seems to have doubted that there was an attack of some sort that had killed 1,300 people – although the Guardianwas cautious in its Thursday splash head, which referred to 'an apparent gas attack' – and Assad was assumed to have been behind the massacre.
The Obama Administration appeared confident on Tuesday night that it had proof both that chemical weapons had been used and that Assad was responsible for deploying them. Such proof could be said to legitimise military intervention under the 1925 Geneva convention. It would also allow the UN to justify action under its R2P – responsibility to protect – rules. These rules were were established after its peacekeepers stood by while Bosnian Muslims were massacred in Srebrenica.
It is rare for accurate casualty figures to emerge on the day of any disaster, no matter how many reporters and trusted sources there are on the ground. So the 1,300 could never have been a reliable number. Medecins Sans Frontieres, which has been working with hospitals in Syria, has said that about 3,600 people were affected, of whom 355 are known to have died.
Thus the deaths of 355 people in a civil war that has killed at least 100,000 are to become the tipping point: the end of the tutting and the 'something must be done' muttering; the start of a dangerous venture into the unknown.
President Obama is expected to show his hand today. Cameron, William Hague, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel are singing the Moral Chorus in four-part close harmony – which is just as well, since there is no orchestra or backing choir in sight.
Polls suggest that 60 per cent of Americans and up to 75 per cent of Britons are against any kind of military intervention. The only surprise there is that American antipathy isn't greater.
Nor is the British Press humming along. Every national paper ran a leader on Syria yesterday, but only The Times offered Cameron anything like the kind of support he would have wanted.
Coverage over the past two days has been thorough. The Independent, for example, gave the story a splash, five inside pages, plus a leader and an oped yesterday and similar space today. Barely a tree has been spared to ensure that there is enough newsprint to examine the case for war – and still plenty to spare for Miley Cyrus and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
It was serious, restrained stuff. The Sun and the Mirror may have stuck with the tabloidese that insists on 'ammo' and 'tyrant' even when there's room for 'ammunition' and 'President', but there was no jingoism, no "We're off to war to save the world". Ten years after Iraq, at least some lessons have been learnt.
The Independent built on its Heir to Blair splash yesterday by looking at the parallels between Iraq and Syria: was intervention legal, were weapons inspectors given enough times, was Parliament properly consulted, was public opinion behind action and was Britain behaving like America's poodle.
Steve Richards draws further parallels on the leader page spread today, while the news pages carry an analysis by Patrick Cockburn of the threat to the rest of the region and a big-name voxpop.
The big names have been out in force across the Press – Tony Blair in The Times, William Hague in the Telegraph, David Owen in the Mirror, Hans Blix in the Guardian to name but four. Then there are the military experts, the clergy, not to mention the everyday pundits.
Nearly everyone has predicted that there would be up to 48 hours of cruise missile attacks in an 'arm's-length assault'. But then what? Syria isn't going to roll over. As the Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Muallem, quoted in theTelegraph, said:
"We have two options: either to surrender or to defend ourselves with the means at our disposal. the second choice is the best. We will defend ourselves. We have the means to defend ourselves and we will surprise everyone. The strike will come and go. We get mortars every day and we have learnt to live with them."
In the Independent, Kim Sengupta wrote that General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, had said that air strikes "would not be militarily decisive, but would commit us decisively to the conflict". Sengupta also reminded readers of the laws of unintended consequences and painted various scenarios that could make things even worse for ordinary Syrians.
There was not even consensus on the objective of airstrikes. Obama may have a vision of a future Syria that is "peaceful, non-sectarian, democratic, legitimate and tolerant". But even I can see that that won't be achieved by a weekend of bombings.
Some papers believe the intent is to force Assad to a new round of Geneva talks – that when he realises the American ships in the area aren't there just to take in the sun, he will see reason. Er yes, he's bound to with a Russian missile cruiser and anti-submarine ship steaming towards the Med.
We have also heard the dreaded phrase 'regime change'. To what? The 'rebels' are no longer the ordinary protesters who set out to secure democracy during the Arab spring two years ago. They are now, as Robert Fisk points out in the Independent, backed by Al-Qaeda, raising the bizarre notion that America and the terrorists behind 9/11 could find themselves on the same side.
And what would be the targets of these air strikes? Again, all the Press could do was speculate. Roger Boyes in The Times yesterday went through five possibilities. These range from a simple show of force that could lead to peace talks to attacks on helicopters and Scud missile sites that could lead to all-out war. It made sober and sobering reading. Today he is more forthright in saying that 'clinical' airstrikes are less than useless and that the only feasible objective of any action is to get rid of Assad:
So here is what is missing from the decision to use “stand-off” weapons against Syria: a determination to confront an evil regime. In my old-fashioned view, you either go to war, or you don’t.
Cruise missiles cannot be used as a kind of high-tech pigeon post to send messages to dictators set on killing their own people. If you punish Assad without defeating him, the only message he will understand is that he remains invincible. That is how it will look from the President’s underground hideout.
The goal has to be to topple Assad."
His colleague the recently ennobled Danny Finkelstein argued that that the fact we don't know how what air strikes might lead to is no reason to do nothing. In his view, inaction is not an option, whereas by doing something Assad may be forced to talk:
No one can be certain that acting will produce this outcome or that the outcome will be desirable. No one can say for sure what the end game is. Once we start the whole thing is open-ended. But the point is that if we don't start it is open-ended too, and no one knows what the end-game of that inaction is either."
On the other hand, Seamus Milne in the Guardian saw no possibility of any good coming from airstrikes. He urged the West to seize the moment to give the UN the authority and backing it needed to secure chemical weapons dumps. But he was not hopeful and concluded:
Even if the attacks are limited, they will certainly increase the death toll and escalate the war. The risk is that they will invite retaliation by Syria or its allies – including against Israel – draw the US in deeper and spread the conflict. The West can use this crisis to help bring Syria's suffering to an end – or pour yet more petrol on the flames."
Ah yes, Israel. Hezbollah. It's frightening. Israel, which has been asked to keep quiet, can probably look after itself if it comes under attack. But what of the rest of the region?
The Arab League has said that it is convinced that Assad was behind the attack last week; Turkey agrees that Syria should be punished. It has some defences in case of retaliation, but Jordan, which is seeing a stream of refugees fleeing the conflict, has a way to go, even with the allies offering reassurances that it will be protected.
Few need telling that one false move in the Middle East could lead to conflagration, but how many understand the intricacies of the relationships between the countries? The Sun should be congratulated for its attempt to spell out the various positions in this series of factboxes.
The Sun, Guardian, Independent and Telegraph leader writers all counselled caution yesterday, mostly with a strong hint that military action might not be a great idea. The Mail and Express went further. The Expresseditorial, headlined An entirely inappropriate use of our military power, pointed to the rebels' Al-Qaeda links and urged MPs to vote against air strikes.
On the same page the political commentator Janice Atkinson wrote that Blair's intervention should be enough to convince anyone that bombing Syria was not a good idea: 'Putting Blair in charge of the Middle East is like putting Harold Shipman in charge of the elderly.'
Stephen Glover on the Mail's leader page was even harsher. Under the heading 'This warmonger is the very last man we should listen to' he wrote:
Here is the wild-eyed Tony who once told a Labour Party conference that he would re-order the world. 'From the threat of the Iraqi regime to the pulverising of Syria,' he declares, 'to the pains of the Egyptian revolution, from Libya to Tunisia, in Africa, Central Asia and the Far East, wherever this extremism is destroying the lives of innocent people, we should be at their side and on it.'
"Golly, Tony Blair is going to have us fight a lot of wars all over the place."
The second leader alongside the Glover piece was equally appalled:
"Isn't it hard to imagine any more dangerous advice from this perma-tanned fantasist – the incongruously styled Middle East peace envoy – who led Britain to war in Iraq on a lie?
Indeed it is precisely because Mr Blair so fatally undermined public trust in the Prime Minister's office that it is vital for MPs to scrutinise all the facts before we blunder into another bloodbath."
Don't you love newspaper style that allows the leader writer to describe a former Prime Minister as a perma-tanned fantasist yet requires that he keeps his honorific.
Today the Mail follows up with a full-page leader telling MPs that if they have the slightest suspicion that airstrikes would cause more suffering than they could prevent, then they have a moral duty to vote no. It further questions what makes Syria different from other conflicts from which we have stood aloof, such as those in Zimbabwe, Congo, Darfur, and quotes an uncomfortable sentence from the Spectator over the distinction of using chemical weapons:
"We are, in effect, asking Assad if he would please kill his enemies using conventional means."
It is just possible that, for once, the restrained approach by the Press managed to restrain the politicians. Perhaps emboldened by the public aversion to military action and the executive-chair generals' words of warning, Ed Miliband called the Prime Minister yesterday afternoon and said he could not guarantee Labour's support in the Commons today.
Within a couple of hours, Britain had submitted a draft resolution to the UN, Cameron had agreed that no action would be taken before the weapons inspectors had reported, and MPs were promised two votes – one today and one at a later date – before Britain became involved in any attack on Syria.
Almost as quickly the story became, for the Press, an old-fashioned Westminster tussle instead of hand-wringing over the fate of people they don't really care about. The trusted words and phrases came bouncing back: 'mutiny', 'humiliating climbdown', 'forced into retreat', 'back from the brink'. The politicos could write the inside story of the comings and goings, how Miliband's stock has risen. And all just before the party conferences. Happy days all round – for now.
No one wants Assad to gas anyone, and certainly not his own people, any more than they did when Saddam Hussein attacked the Kurds, But there is little public appetite for British involvement in another Middle Eastern conflict.
To put it bluntly, it frightens us. We are scared that if there is a third world war, it will probably start in the Middle East and we don't want to risk it.
The papers reflected that. Miliband took heed and Cameron recognised when he held a losing hand. The Americans may go ahead with the bombings at the weekend, but they will be without a faithful hound at their side – if you were so minded, you might think of it in terms of Dick Dastardly flying without Muttley.
Attacking Assad may eventually prove to be the right thing to do, but for now it is much-derided Fleet Street that has done the right thing. It has helped to persuade the politicians to pause and think.
It has cause to be proud.