Confirmation that the U.S. and its allies are studying their military options for helping the anti-Assad rebels in Syria is a worrying development on a number of levels, not least of which is the prospect of the West becoming embroiled in a direct confrontation with the Russians
As I have argued before, I think the West – and that includes Britain – needs to proceed with great caution before it gets too closely involved in the Syrian crisis. As with the Libya situation last year, we still have no clear idea who the rebels are in Syria, or what their ultimate objective might be.
Homs, the centre of the anti-Assad rebellion, is a known centre for Islamist extremists, and if all Western intervention achieves is the replacement of the Assad regime with an Iranian-style Islamist dictatorship, then we will have scored a monumental own goal.
Of deeper concern, though, is the possibility that the U.S. could find itself involved in a direct military confrontation with Russia over the future of Syria's destiny. We have been here before, of course, during the 1980s when, at the height of the Cold War, Moscow and Washington fought a proxy war over the fate of neighbouring Lebanon.
Even though U.S. President Ronald Reagan deployed thousands of U.S. Marines to Beirut, the Americans were eventually sent packing. During that conflict Russia backed the Syrians, who in turn used the Iranian-backed Hizbollah militia to carry out a series of devastating terrorist attacks against the Americans, ultimately forcing them to withdraw their forces from Lebanon.
The Cold War might be consigned to the history books, but a similar confrontation could easily arise if Washington decides to become engaged militarily in Syria to protect anti-government rebels.
This week's visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Damascus has highlighted Syria's importance to Moscow. The Syrian port of Tartus is Russia's only military base outside the old Soviet Union and, at a time when the West is strengthening its ties throughout the Arab world, the Russians regard Syria as a vital strategic asset. Consequently any attempt by the Western powers to meddle in Syria's internal affairs is likely to prompt a robust response from Moscow.
One of the reasons the Lebanese civil war dragged on for fifteen years was that the conflict ended up being caught in a turf war between Washington and Moscow. I fear a similar fate could soon befall Syria.