The spectacle, offered to the whole world, of the USA dithering over whether or not to attack Syria, has been prolonged by the decision of US President Barack Obama to wait for congressional approval, but there are definite undertones of the Cold War, as Russian manoeuvring has taken place, which has seemed not so much aimed at preventing the attack as at ensuring that it only occurs after Russia consents.

Since Syria has long been an area in which the West has intervened, and where Russia first got involved in the region, way back in the mid-19th century, it is perhaps inevitable that the West, as well as Russia, should get involved in the gassing. Thus diplomatic involvement by Russia does not merely go back to the Soviet-era patronage extended to the socialist Baath party, through which Hafez Al-Assad, the father of present President Bashar Al-Assad, took over, but to the 19th century Russian concern then over the safety of the pilgrimage routes to Jerusalem. Though those routes now pass through Lebanon and Israel, now sovereign states, they were then part of the Ottoman Caliphate’s province of Syria.

That caliphate, abolished in 1924, seems to be at the back of the mind of discussions of intervention by the USA. The intervention is either not seen as sufficient to topple the Assad regime, or as not guaranteeing the ascent to power, and certainly not the survival, of the pro-Western resistance. On the face of it, the USA is supposed to so intervene that the Syrian regime will refrain again from any further attacks on its own people, but this is mixed up with the US motive of wanting Bashar out for reasons of its own.

It is noticeable that Russia tacitly acknowledges that use of chemical weapons, sarin gas in this case, would precipitate intervention. That would explain why it has been so resolute in its denial of any such use. The Middle East has changed from the time when it was full of pro-Soviet regimes, including Iraq and Syria, which were Baathist, and thus favourably inclined to Soviet socialism. Egypt was also pro-Soviet. Though the USSR was not anti-Israel, it used the pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist, sentiment among the Arabs, to make its position in the region. The USA’s animus against the Iraqi and now Syrian regimes owes much to the choices made by the region’s regimes during the Cold War. Another important factor in American calculations is Israeli opinion. It clearly prefers Bashar remains in power than the uncertainty of a different regime. Israeli precautions provide something of a reason why no American attack would take place. If the chemical weapons can be used against Syria’s own people, can they be used against Israel? Of course, Israel has got nuclear weapons, WMDs of its own. Syria might use their threat to avoid using its chemical weapons against Israel. Incidentally, the use of chemical weapons in Damascus confirms the existence of the weapon, which was developed to counter the Israeli nuclear weapon. Part of the US desire to prevent the proliferation of WMDs, mainly nuclear, but also chemical and biological, weapons, is not just to preserve its own monopoly, for it has all three types, but also to keep Israel safe from their threat, and to prevent its enemies acquiring them. An important and inter-related American entanglement in the region is Iran, where Israeli fears over its nuclear programme have driven the USA to impose sanctions.

Iran is an even stronger backer of Syria than Russia, as is the Hezbollah militia of Lebanon.  It is also claimed that it would be the real victor if the USA does not attack, because if the USA swallows the deployment by Syria of its WMD, there seems no reason why it should not swallow any Iranian WMD programme, even though Iran has repeatedly denied that it was developing a nuclear weapon. However, that would depend on Israel. AIPAC, the American-Israeli Political Action Committee, is lobbying against an American attack, thus indicating how much, and how openly, Israel is backing the Bashar regime. Israel also wants Iran attacked. Therefore, the attack on Syria will win congressional approval if Israel wants it badly enough.

It almost seems as if the Syrian crisis has distracted attention from other crises in the Muslim world that were looming earlier. There seems to be no attention paid to the Pak-India war scare, though recent LoC firing by India indicates that the matter is far from over. The Syrian crisis itself has changed from the tail-end of the Arab Spring to the spectacle of the USA apparently wracked by self-doubt. The crisis in Egypt has slipped from the foreground. The question of the Rohingyas of Burma remains unresolved. The US-Iran problem has not even been papered over. There is no attention being paid to Iran, which is laboring under unjust sanctions, and has just had a new President inaugurated.

Also, the USA is to leave Afghanistan next year, having left Iraq already. It is as if any intervention would be a prelude to once again establishing a large military presence in the Muslim world. It must be remembered that Syria does not contain any physical resources, as did Iraq (oil) or Afghanistan (minerals, as well as being a route into the hydrocarbon-rich Central Asia). Syria is about Israeli security, and the USA will only invade if such an invasion promotes that security, not over the use of chemical weapons. After all, Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the USA has lived with that for so many years. The USA also protected Iraq when it used chemical weapons against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, as well as against its own people. The USA was also then opposed to Iran, but now it is as equally loud in its condemnation as Iran is in defending the use of chemical weapons. It is almost as if the USA does not treat chemical weapons as all that serious, and is willing to use them purely as a tool of national policy.

Is President Obama trying to seek a way out for himself by his reference to Congress? It cannot escape notice that his reference only came after the UK saw a parliamentary resolution suppotying military defeated despite the government’s support. The UK then decided not to join the USA, and only France’s President Franҫois Hollande announced support. However, after the USA announced it would seek congressional approval, he too announced his government would seek parliamentary approval. Especially with the British example already there, it is difficult to see either US Congress or French Parliament giving a go-ahead. It is also difficult to see the USA taking action nonetheless, even the essentially token one of bombing suspected chemical warfare bases. Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry, have been engaged in brave talk about not being bound by a vote, but that is just brave talk and part of the perennial American constitutional debate about how far the President can go as Commander-in-chief, when it is Congress that has a monopoly over declaring war. However, practically, it is not possible to see them defying a vote. That would mean that the USA will not intervene, and Bashar will get away with gassing his own people.

The writer is a veteran journalist  and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.