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.