There is a measurement taking place in the White House in regards to Syria. It seems it doesn't matter how many Syrians have died in the brutal conflict - latest reports up to 70,000 since the uprising began in 2011. Nor does it seem to bother White House officials that the contagion has the possibility of spreading over the country's borders possibly into Israel or Lebanon. What makes a difference to President Obama is that American's interests in the Middle East are not compromised, and that its involvement in Syria will not lay the groundwork for a Jihadi takeover of the Levant.
The US president not only inherited America's misguided foreign adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan but has pretty much followed the roadmap left by his predecessor. Now his unwillingness to intervene and the lack of international pressure (both the US and Russia) on the Bashar Al-Assad regime has propelled the situation to the point where it is now spiralling out of control for both sides, the regime and the opposition. However infrequent and small, the appearance of chemical weapons in the Syrian field of battle could easily suggest, as many political pundits believe, that Damascus is oblivious to the type of shells they have been lobbing into rebel-held areas. When the London Times war reporter Anthony Loyd was asked if the shell that exploded in rebel-held Aleppo belonged to the government on BBC Radio 4, he said that if it was the rebels surely they would have picked a higher profile target than a home belonging to a 27-year old car mechanic. There have also been unverified videos posted by the New York Times that show victims of alleged chemical attacks.
It would be easy for outsiders to dismiss these incidents because the people the shells have killed and wounded are for the most part faceless among the thousands killed or displaced. But for someone like me, who has been working with nonviolent Syrian activists and talking to Syrian humanitarian aide officials, these attacks are significant. Syrian President Assad has been extremely astute in measuring how far he can go before the international community reacts.
This is nothing new. For a long time he and his family have perfected a sliding scale of repression. Before 2011, political dissidents were routinely imprisoned and tortured in the country and no one complained. Afterwards, when the nation-wide mass demonstrations calling for regime change were met with extreme violence by the government, there was international outcry but little action. As the conflict enters its third year, there is no credible proposal or solution in sight.
On the ground there has been a reversal of opinion among Syrians who were once staunchly nonviolent. One humanitarian aid official whose organisation brings medical supplies and ambulances into the country across the Turkish border told me that setting up field hospitals is enormously difficult and hugely expensive. They do this work and then the government shells the field hospitals. The regime also targets doctors; or if they can't get to the doctor, they go for the doctor's family. Against this backdrop, the relief official explained, you don't want international intervention; you want "a level playing field."
On the Turkish border with Syria, he said there is an arms warehouse where a board made up of representatives from the CIA, the British secret service and a Turkish general approves or vetoes the kinds of weapons entering Syria, for the opposition fighters. "They give them RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) - the ones that explode in front of the tank, but don't pierce the shell of tanks," added the official. "It's like fighting with one arm tied behind your back. You can fight but you will come out bloodied, badly beaten up and barely alive." The international community is so frightened of arming Al Qaeda that every Syrian Sunni Muslim, in their eyes, has become a potential terrorist.
Among the nonviolent activists I have been working closely with, they stress to me that they don't believe in violence. However as their loved ones and friends have been killed or imprisoned and they are feeling increasingly isolated, they see counter-violence as the only effective form of self defence. And who in their right mind can blame them?
But these calculations do not apparently feature in Obama's algorithm. Once he might have been seen as a force for change but too many of his promises, domestically and internationally, have gone unfulfilled. Now he is being urged by Congress to do something about a red line he set regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and instead he asks for more time. On the ground, according to Times' reporter Loyd who was told that soon after the attack, American officials were in the hospital taking hair and skin samples from chemical weapons' victims, US officials are doing their research unlike WMDs in Iraq.
It is this extra time Assad banks on. Ever since the conflict began that strategy has been paying him dividends. In this way a wily Arab dictator has outsmarted our Harvard-educated president. In the Middle East, America is no longer a force for good or for change. It will take vision to turn this around - vision that has been lacking in White House policies so far.
*Algorithms were originally developed during the golden age of medieval Islamic science and invention under the Abbasids, in Baghdad. The word comes from the surname of Abu Jafar Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, a Persian Arab mathematician, astronomer and geographer.