The West has indicated that the chemical weapons attack of last week has moved it much closer towards military intervention in Syria. The US is slowly shedding its original reluctance to become involved in yet another civil war in West Asia. There can be no excuse for the use of chemical arms and little point in arguing that State sovereignty is so sacred that international intervention must not be countenanced under any circumstance.
There are circumstances in which sovereignty can be set aside — India has shown this in Bangladesh and later in the Maldives. The use of chemical weapons would constitute such a circumstance, though not necessarily sufficient for an intervention whose goal is regime change.
The arguments in favour of intervention by the West have been accumulating. One is a fear of Islamic militant groups emerging the victors. The argument goes that the longer the civil war continues, the more likely its character will be Islamicist.
So taking action against the Bashar al-Assad regime makes sense. Another argument is that taking on the Syrian regime would wound its closest ally, Iran. This, in turn, would make Tehran more amenable to a negotiated settlement on the nuclear programme. There is also a strong case being made on humanitarian grounds.
What is lacking is a legitimate ground for intervention that would resonate with the public. The UN team has a huge responsibility on its shoulders. The experience of Iraq where the WMD claims against the Saddam Hussein regime that were used to give legitimacy to the US-led invasion were subsequently shown to be wrong. The quality of evidence required to make a case for intervention is today higher.
There is a consensus that chemical weapons were used, but the extent of the attack and who deployed them is unclear. There have been previous reports of chemical warfare in Syria. An earlier UN team in May had said the finger of suspicion pointed to the rebels rather than the government. Syria is less a nation than a battleground befogged by brutality, ideology and little clarity. It is a place foreigners should not fear to tread, but only if they know for what it is that they are putting their boots on the ground.