West mustn’t rush into Syrian conflict

By Hugo Dixon
August 27, 2013

The drumbeats of a new Western military intervention in the Middle East are beating louder and louder. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday it was “undeniable” that chemical weapons had been used in an attack last week in Damascus. Meanwhile, the British foreign secretary said the UK and its allies could launch a military intervention without the approval of the United Nations. This is because a U.N. resolution authorising an attack on Syria would almost certainly be blocked by Russia.

The desire to do something to punish Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime is understandable, particularly after last week’s gas attack. But the West still mustn’t rush in. Before it takes any military action, it needs to present compelling evidence that Assad is the culprit. Any intervention should also be a specific response to the gas attack rather than suck the West into this ghastly civil war.

Many people will argue that we already have the evidence we need to know that Assad is guilty. The weapons were used in a part of Damascus where his troops had been vainly trying to dislodge rebels. Assad has a big stash of chemical weapons and the means to deliver them. What’s more, he refused to give U.N. investigators immediate access to the site – seemingly the action of a man who wants to cover up a crime rather than that of an innocent who has been slandered.

This is all strong circumstantial evidence. But none of it amounts to proof. That matters because we have seen dossiers sexed up before – notably the one used by Tony Blair to justify the invasion of Iraq. It also matters because, as with Iraq, any intervention in Syria will probably have to be undertaken without U.N. approval. It is not in the West’s interests to undermine the U.N.’s authority any further. Just look at its intervention in Libya in 2011, which went beyond what the U.N. authorised. Russia has used that as an excuse to block U.N. resolutions on Syria.

While the West should not deny itself the possibility of going outside the U.N. framework in exceptional circumstances, the circumstances do need to be truly exceptional. In this case, that at least means having hard evidence and presenting it to world opinion – so that all but the most bone-headed will agree that Russia is willfully denying the truth if it vetoes a U.N. resolution.

The U.N. inspectors, who briefly reached the site of the attack on Monday, may be able to provide some evidence – although much of it has probably now been obliterated. Kerry also says America has “additional information” which it will provide in the coming days. If this evidence is not compelling, the West should hold fire.

There will be those who say that the failure to take action will give Assad a green light for further chemical attacks. But that’s not so. If he continues to gas his opponents, as well as innocent civilians, the evidence will eventually become compelling.

Those advocating immediate action say delaying will just mean more people will be killed. But over 100,000 people have already been killed in Syria, with many atrocities on all sides of the civil war. These have allegedly included castrating a boy and eating the heart of a dead enemy. Last week’s chemical weapons attack, which may have killed around 1,000 people, is gruesome but not obviously more heinous than much of what has gone before.

What makes the use of chemical weapons special is that, as Kerry put it, the civilised world decided long ago that they must not be used at all. This means that a failure to punish their use by Assad might amount to a green light for others to use them in future. But still, it’s necessary to have proof.

Even if proof can be produced, military intervention must be aimed at punishing Assad – not at trying to swing the civil war in a particular direction. Early on in the conflict, it was possible to say that the rebels were the good guys and Assad was the bad guy. But now al Qaeda and other extremist groups have joined the rebels. While some advocates of intervention think the West should supply sophisticated weapons to the remaining moderates, there’s a great risk that arms will fall into the wrong hands and moderates will become extremists. Meanwhile, the West rightly doesn’t have the stomach for putting troops on the ground, following the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Western powers would need to be crystal clear about the purpose of any intervention. The aim would be to punish the use of chemical weapons to avoid a precedent being set, not to try to help those suffering in this ghastly civil war.

If we are really motivated by humanitarian feelings, there are other things we can do. We should give much more aid to the 1.7 million Syrians who have already registered as refugees and the countless others who haven’t. We should support anything resembling civil society in Syria. While it may not have any chance of achieving much in the near future, it will be needed when the war ends. Finally, we should give as much help as possible to neighbouring countries such as Lebanon which risks getting engulfed in the conflict. The West should do all this, whether or not it launches a military strike.

 

10 comments

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This has all the makings of a disaster. Even if it is proven Assad and/or a top government approved the chemical attack, I have to question why the US/West must respond militarily. And this isn’t because I am squeamish about the use of military force or the initiation of a war. My issue is that military force should be a last resort. In this instance, it is apparently of the first resort. What about a total Western economic embargo of the Syrian government and the areas of Syria it still controls? What about freezing all Syrian assets in US/Western banks? These are certainly viable options and would likely have a greater impact on the Syrian government, and other nations which might consider the use of chemical weapons, that would a limited military strike. And the US/Western military response will have to be limited. But, perhaps, this is more about our longer term policy of supporting a regime change in Syria, and the alleged chemcial attack is the perfect excuse for advancing that policy.

Posted by bald1 | Report as abusive

“The Iraqi regime . . . possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons. We know that the regime has produced thousands of tons of chemical agents, including mustard gas, sarin nerve gas, VX nerve gas.” – George W Bush.

“And they were thrown out of the incubators…so Kuwait could be systematically dismantle.” – George Bush, Snr.

Seems everyone has a short memory.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

The Libyan intervention was legal. Russia has abstained.
The problem we Russians had: the developments in Libya went much further than “no-fly” zone. In a situation like this, an expansion of military operations under the U.N. mandate is hard to define.
It makes me wonder why authors keep saying Russia without adding China?
The fact is. We have 3 NATO members (remind me of their disagreements at U.N.) vs. Russia and China. The voices of the whole world are going through particular countries. Russia usually represents the position of India, which traditionally doesn’t like to be vocal. China represents other countries (many African states.)
We probably may have a better U.N. But nobody suggested a better idea, as of yet.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

Since both sides are full of bad guys who hate the West. The response must of a nature that helps neither burt punishes the gas attack. But keep in mind out side nations where not gassed and we use ter gas internally also.

I suggest giving the rebels some gas weapons or gassing after bombing places where the gassers live or work. the the rebels some gas weapons keeps our hands clean. Punishes but changes nothing.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

The main problem with the warmongering idealism the West demonstrates once more in case of Syria crisis is that the new crusader kings ignore the history lessons both of the Medieval crusades and of the recent ones, namely Serbia, Iraq and Afganistan. Though the lesson seems to be obvious – any attempt to impose your idealistic standards upon “barbarians” with sword and fire results in many more victims both among the “barbarians” and “crusaders” than before the intervention.

Posted by Fred_1945 | Report as abusive

“What’s more, he refused to give U.N. investigators immediate access to the site”

Actually, that is an inaccurate claim and may be a bit of war propaganda. By a credible report, the Assad government granted access within 24 hours of being asked. There was an unexplained delay in the UN asking permission.
http://www.accuracy.org/release/un-admit s-it-didnt-ask-for-access-in-syria-until -saturday/

Posted by Adam_Smith | Report as abusive

What about freezing all Syrian assets in US/Western banks?
If we freeze those assets. How are we supposed to sell them weapons? Nobody seems to think of the poor arms merchants. It’s not a real war unless somebody is making some money. I think it’s pretty clear $ > people.

Posted by Duffman | Report as abusive

Firstly, the UN has dithered already for seven months since the first chemical attack. I’m of the position of I don’t care would launched it, an intervention is necessary. So this isn’t a case of the West being rash or moving too soon – it should be making up for lost time in which another 50k people have been killed.

Secondly, WTF is wrong with you people? This regime is deliberately attacking civilians with WMDs!! If you switch ‘sarin gas’ with ‘tacital nuclear weapon’ would this even be an argument? Would the anti-war and anti-West crowd be poo-pooing the warmongers? Well, they’d probably start saying the West sold them the weapons in the first place (nope, it’s the Russians…)

Thirdly, Lebanon is a proxy of Syria. The last time they has free elections their elected PM was assassinated by Syrian paramilitary forces. They ARE a part of this conflict whether it is recognized or not.

Fourth, Turkey has done a tremendous job of helping with the bulk of the Syrian refugees. The Assad regime had taken to firing on Turks at one point because of their largesse to refugees. To overlook that is to know nothing of the conflict.

Fifth, as for freezing assets… Syria is so intertwined with Iran that this would prove little more than a feint (as Iran has already had all it’s legitimate intl dealings curtailed, though China seems to find away around it continually…)

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

Maybe Britain should have intervened when Sherman performed is “March to the Sea” during our civil war?

Syria is not our country, its citizens are not our citizens, and its wars are not our wars. We do not have a military to fight other countries’ wars, but our own. I hope that if we DO act in this, that Americans become completely disgusted with our warmongering government once and for all. Nobody wants this fight except people who are drunk on our military capabilities and lack any kind of restraint or understand of the consequences of war.

Posted by ShiroiKarasu | Report as abusive

Everyone knows that the limited responses being discussed will accomplish nothing from a military or political perspective. It is entirely symbolic. So, are we faced yet again with a President who has been labeled a wimp and must prove he’s willing to use military force to save face?

Haven’t we learned that such action is guaranteed to backfire, causing all sorts of bad collateral effects including increasing anti-Americanism. So much for winning “hearts and minds”. They only ones who gain are the American arms manufacturers and their rich investors.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive