The Duck of Minerva

Questions about Syria

27 August 2013

The US and UK are apparently preparing for air strikes against the Syrian Assad regime, claiming there is little doubt that it is responsible for horrific chemical weapons attacks. Syria has allegedly crossed President Obama’s ‘red line.’

Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague claims that “We can not in the twenty first century allow the idea that chemical weapons can be used with impunity, that people can be killed in this way and that there are no consequences for it.”

Several problems here:

This rush to judgment is happening before the UN has established beyond reasonable doubt who is responsible. Do we really need to be reminded that WMD-related claims are worth subjecting to a decent standard of proof before going to war?

There is a greater amount evidence from the UN to date that Syrian’s rebels, or at least some of them, may have also used chemical weapons, which has been substantiated though not conclusively found by a formal investigation. If so, they did it in the twenty first century, killed people and so far the US and its allies have not applied punishment.

Why? Is this because somehow we apply a greater standard of proof to the Syrian opposition than the state? If so, why? Syrian rebels thus far have also committed atrocities, such as beheadings, and one rebel commander threatened cannibalism. Hard to see why the same elements would blush at using sarin gas.

And for that matter, what about this latest attack? Russia may have its own unspeakable motives for suggesting that the rebels may be the ones using chemical weapons, but the Syrian opposition may have form on this and the suggestion is not so outlandish that we shouldn’t await further proof.

Or is it that  the taboo on chemical weapons use applies only to sovereign states? That would be odd, given the determination with which the US-led coalition has tried to prevent terrorist groups getting their hands on such weapons.

Or is it because in Western coverage of these brutal, complex wars, we still strive to classify warring sides into predators and victims, the good and the wicked?

More broadly, if chemical weapons atrocities must not be abided (except when they are), why should this not also apply to lethal mischief carried out by small arms, or indeed machetes? As Peter Hitchens argues, the military regime that recently came to power in a coup and which has been abided by the West, is shooting people down at a steady clip in the street, and on tv at that.

For the sake of argument, lets say chemical weapons attacks are exceptionally barbaric, that it did happen and that the Syrian government is responsible.  Is bombing on the justification that this behaviour can never be tolerated without punishment really prudent? Is the US preparing cruise missile attacks because of its President’s bold words about red lines and are fearful of a credibility problem? In that case, is the US rhetorically locked in to bombing every state that is suspected of using chemical weapons from now on? What happens when our own clients or allies start gassing cities? Obama and Hague’s rhetoric is pretty categorical, and sets a high standard by which it will be judged.

Once violent punishment is applied from afar, in this case from submarines and warships, Washington may achieve what missile diplomats pursue – gratification without commitment. But what then?

If history is any guide, the first strikes will not topple the regime. Innocents will die. It may turn a regional mutipolar war into a truly international escalation, in which America’s patient efforts to restore a working relationship with Moscow are strained, and where the Assad regime now has an unambiguous enemy to unite its followers against. This could lead to further escalation and mutual atrocities on the ground, and  may then lead to downstream pressure to escalate again. Are we ready for this? What if Assad’s stature grows rather than shrinks in Syria, and he becomes a symbol of defiance against the hypocritical West? What if this increases rather than removes the driving force for Western intervention, the fear of embarrassment?

Finally, the US and its allies, whether it likes it or not, will be objectively taking sides with militant Islamists (something it is fashionable to mock them for in its proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan), an alignment that has gone just so well in Libya and Egypt so far.

But then again, maybe it will all work out for the best.