On Syria and those chemical weapons

Syria dirty kid grapesI’m not hungry, I’m not cold, I’m not afraid. While this little chap  with his grimy face and a horribly inappropriate T-shirt tries to flog a handful of grapes, I sit here with the sun streaming in through the window, with my Chopin, my coffee and my dog at my feet, trying to forge an opinion. It’s the least I can do. How else can I know, when the politicians take a decision, whether or not I agree with them; whether or not I’ll vote for them next time around.

I approached this article by Malcolm Rifkind with some apprehension. Rifkind is a Tory grandee after all. But he’s also chairman of the Commons foreign and defence committee and, in terms of the information available to him, his overview is as complete as that of any British politician. He covers all the ground in straightforward language:

Who is responsible?

If […] the inspectors confirm that hundreds were killed and thousands were injured; that would be damning evidence against Assad because only his regime have that chemical weapons capability and the missiles that are needed to deliver the warheads.

What should we do?

The best response to these atrocities would be for the UN security council to approve action to punish the Assad regime, but we know that the Russians will veto any such proposal regardless of the evidence.

What can we do?

If there is a consensus among most of the international community, including the countries of the Arab League, that action is necessary, then it should go ahead.

And he concludes that “we should all have cause for shame” if we did nothing about the use of chemical weapons.

Martin Kettle, condemning “Russia’s cold war mentality veto”, makes a similar point here:

…a veto should not mean that no action can be taken once the process has been given a proper chance. If Vladimir Putin gets to decide what is or is not legal, then international law is an ass.

It’s difficult to argue against that. Difficult – but not impossible. Hans Blix (here) considers that position, and rejects it:

Unlike George Bush in 2003, the Obama administration is not trigger-happy and contemptuous of the United Nations and the rules of its charter, which allow the use of armed force only in self-defence or with an authorisation from the security council. Yet Obama, like Bush and Blair, seems ready to ignore the council and order armed strikes on Syria with political support from only the UK, France and some others.

Such action could not be “in self-defence” or “retaliation”, as the US, the UK and France have not been attacked. To punish the Assad government for using chemical weapons would be the action of self-appointed global policemen – action that, in my view, would be very unwise.

Moreover, Blix offers a timely reminder of the context: there’s a fucking civil war going on! We may agree that chemical weapons are a “moral obscenity” but striking at a few missile sites or helicopter bases would be:

 like telling the regime that “you can go on with your war but do stay away from the chemical weapons”?

The Guardian editorial strikes the same chord:

After a civil war that is killing 5,000 every month and has created 1.8 million refugees, straining to the limits the resources of neighbouring countries, the primary objective of all regional powers has got to be to stop it.

The Guardian also reminds us that the West has previous in the Middle East and past mistakes feed into present turmoil.

After eight western interventions in Arab or Muslim countries in 15 years, sceptical generals and a hostile western public at large are entitled to answers. They are surely entitled to demand clarity from their political leaders, not least because the consequences, unintended or otherwise, of previous interventions show little sign of abating. Specifically in Syria, the most toxic and enduring element of the civil war – the sectarian battle between Sunnis and Shias – though a historic one, is a product of the way US forces used Shia militia when they first came under sustained attack from Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Syria is so intractable not just because of where it is, and who its neighbours are, but because the damage caused by such interventions is cumulative.

Syria SAMsThere’s another unwelcome (but necessary) reminder in that editorial: in military terms, Syria is no push-over. Assad has been armed and equipped by the Russians, notably with combat aircraft and SAM missiles, and there is considerable hubris involved in the apparent assumption that ‘we’ can penetrate their air defence at will.

Finally, there’s the small matter of an elephant in the room: there was no moral imperative to intervene when Iraq used chemical weapons on a large scale in the war with Iran in the 1980s. Why not? Because Saddam Hussein, before he became public enemy n°1, was “our man” in the region (apart from anything else, this is no doubt part of the reason why Iran is not being helpful now). Double standards, do I hear? Hypocrisy even? This wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that Syria is a Russian ally, would it?

For me, the fact that Rifkind and Kettle duck this issue invalidates their analysis.

The cause of our shame is that we allowed this appalling situation to develop in the first place. Those who would punish Assad for using chemical weapons while turning their back on the war seek to salve their conscience. But that won’t do.

Friday morning update. The British Parliament, bless their cotton socks, has got it right for once. Last night’s government motion was defeated in the Commons and British participation in any military intervention in Syria is now ruled out. Over to you, Mr Obama.

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