Cicero may have popularised Cassio’s wise words “to whose benefit?“, but in our cynical times we need to refine the question: to whose expectation of benefit? Indeed, it seems implausible that the subtle distinction should have been lost on the Romans, but I certainly lack the comprehension of their language that would enable me to judge such nuances.
WordPress records show the above as the first words of a draft saved, but not published, on February 26th 2012, following the death in Syria of distinguished journalist Marie Colvin. Who could expect to benefit from her death? Or indeed from the escalation of events both before and since: an incursion at the Turkish border, various massacres. Most recently the use of sarin gas, coming conveniently shortly after Obama had spoken of chemical weapons as a ‘red line’ that would provoke a change of policy.
The answer must surely be, someone looking to provoke Western intervention. Someone given hope of powerful backing by western rhetoric, and by events in Libya. They’ve been disappointed for a long time, but now finally it seems Obama will supply them with weapons. For anyone else to engage in such gratuitously provocative yet militarily futile acts would be extraordinarily perverse. Above all, for a government with nothing to gain and everything to lose if the West were to get seriously involved (not to mention a ruthless but quietly efficient president without the vain showmanship of Saddam or Gaddafi).
Nor could you rule out someone with an even more sinister Agenda, like the CIA or Al Qaeda, or one-off maverick nutters, with whom neither ‘side’ would wish to be associated. The latter can be the ones who have the most devastating effects of all, as in the assassins of Franz Ferdinand or Yitzhak Rabin.
Can this be lost on our politicians and their advisors? Seems unlikely. I suspect much of the current rhetoric is driven by a complex case of good-cop-bad-cop desperately hoping to achieve something. Those Western politicians who really want military intervention do so for external reasons: to topple a regime with a history of the two great regional crimes of being friendly with Iran and hostile to Israel (even if Israel itself would rather have a devil-you-know relationship with a stable neighbour than a civil war)!
Could a new Western-friendly president in Iran change the situation? It’s an interesting prospect (and will probably spare Iran the kind of disturbance that followed re-election of the ‘wrong’ man last time), but I fear it’s too late to make much difference. Events in Syria have momentum. Likewise in the West: if the more gung-ho of American politicians and their backers rebuffed Khatami in more peaceful times, how likely are they to change now, when it would mean some serious backing down? But at least Rohani’s probable election could serve to strengthen the hands of those favouring peace in the region including, I think, Obama himself.
Where I think the West must really bear guilt is in provoking the war in the first place. The ambiguous rhetoric and the Libyan example led rebels to suppose they’d get support if things got bad enough, but also westernised media-savvy Syrian emigrants who “spoke for” the country when it was all starting, spinners of propaganda like the “gay girl“, and doubtless others, all contributed. The contrast must surely be Bahrain, where a similar uprising was suppressed by a government that was historically more repressive than Syria’s. The obvious difference is that with no agents provocateurs or prospect of international support, Bahraini protestors cut their losses rather than escalate when the government reacted firmly to them. Bahrain didn’t get Egyptian-style democracy, but neither did it get the horrors of civil war.
 Who “they” may be, and whether there is a faction less guilty than the government to whom the West could supply weapons is an altogether different question. Not one I could speculate on.
 The Iranian president from 1997-2005, who made serious efforts to mend fences with the West but was firmly rebuffed by the US, sending a message that the West wasn’t interested and that a Western-friendly leadership was a waste of time.