Syria after Ghouta: the urge to act, and the need to act wisely

Regardless of how ‘surgical’ strikes are claimed to be, military action is a blunt instrument that, in this case, is on the table merely because of a poverty of alternatives.

Philip Leech
30 August 2013

For the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, there is no doubt that the ruling Assad regime is responsible for the horrific gas attack in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, on 21 August 2013. Given the so called ‘red line’ articulated by President Obama a year ago, and several times since, over the use of chemical weapons, it is unsurprising that western allies are preparing themselves for some kind of intervention.

The march toward engagement continues apace. French President Hollande has articulated his wish to "punish" those responsible, and according to a Reuters report rebel groups have been told to expect some kind of military action in the coming days - albeit, following last night’s vote, it now seems unlikely that Britain would participate in the first wave of any such attack. It is worth reflecting once more on the background to the conflict and considering, carefully, the possible consequences of action or inaction.

Caution, consideration and greater thought are required before any commitment to a military campaign is made. We must consider the reality that international norms claimed by the west as justification for engagement are more ambiguous than they might first appear. And we must acknowledge that we simply don’t know enough about potential consequences of military action, and it is therefore – at least for now – impossible for western allies to act responsibly.

International norms

According to the west’s political rhetoric, the issue of international norms is at the heart of each of the three western governments’ rhetoric. As the UK foreign secretary, William Hague made clear in a recent interview, "We cannot 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."

Prima facie Hague’s augment makes perfect sense. The logic is that the use of chemical weapons has been outlawed under international law since the Geneva Protocol was signed in 1925. They are an intolerable threat to civilians and military personnel alike, and it is only reasonable that those states capable of acting do so in order to deter their further use.

However, on closer inspection, it becomes evident that the nature of this international norm is more ambiguous that it first appears. This is for two main reasons: first, that the norm is in itself essentially arbitrary and flexible and, second, that it has not been enforced when it is inconvenient for western allies.

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), passed in 1993, has been signed and ratified by 189 states. However, both Israel and Myanmar have only signed the treaty but not ratified it while Angola, Egypt, North Korea, South Sudan and Syria have not signed it. Obviously the fact Syria and North Korea, both states that are deeply antagonistic toward US power, are not signatories, does little to demonstrate the ambiguity of the international norm.

However, that neither Egypt nor Israel has fully ratified the treaty, both of which are states boasting a strong historical alliance with the US and, to a lesser extent, the main European powers is more problematic. Indeed, it raises the question: if the US, UK and France are so concerned with enforcing the international prohibition of chemical weapons, why have they failed to influence their allies and ensure that they both sign and ratify the CWC?

The other side of the coin is the lack of universal enforcement, most evident following the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Husain’s forces throughout the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, culminating in the devastating massacre at Halabja, in what is now the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. These attacks killed somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 people and injured up to 10,000 more. In this case there was no immediate response by western powers and, according to recently declassified documents, the US reaction was characterised by ambivalence – or perhaps even complicity – as Foreign Policy recently reported:

In contrast to today's wrenching debate over whether the United States should intervene to stop alleged chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government, the United States applied a cold calculus three decades ago to Hussein's widespread use of chemical weapons against his enemies and his own people. The Reagan administration decided that it was better to let the attacks continue if they might turn the tide of the war. And even if they were discovered, the CIA wagered that international outrage and condemnation would be muted.

Beyond the lack of universality of this international norm is the issue of its essentially arbitrary nature. In the context of Syria, the applicability of this question is obvious. According to UN estimates, the civil war has claimed more than 100,000 casualties, the vast majority of which were killed by conventional means, yet it only the use of chemical weapons that has inspired the potential action by the west.

Of course it can be argued that all ‘norms’ are fundamentally arbitrary, but with respect to this conflict, the message these events will likely carry for both Assad and his foes is: some means of killing civilians are acceptable and some are taboo. In other words, if you want to carry out further bloodshed, chose a conventional option. 

The potential consequences

Borrowing a quote from the BBC series ‘Yes Minister’, one recent post on the excellent Duck of Minerva deftly identified what is probably at the core of the west’s drive to engagement. This can be understood as ‘politician’s logic’; in light of the chemical weapons attack, the US and UK leaderships have concluded that, "we must do something, this is something, therefore we must do it”. According to this line of argument, the rush towards military engagement is predicated on a logical fallacy: the assumption that because what has happened is heinous, it must be met with some kind of response. Yet there is no genuine understanding of whether that response will lead to a positive outcome, a negative outcome or actually prove ineffective overall.

In short, for the west, 'military action' is assumed to be something that can solve such problems, but regardless of how ‘surgical’ strikes are claimed to be, this cannot hide the fact that military action is a blunt instrument that, in this case, is on the table merely because of a poverty of alternatives.

The lack of knowledge and understanding of the potential consequences of this western action should be of great concern. The situation in Syria is highly complex, both in terms of the history of the ethnic, religious and cultural stratifications within that society, and the conflict’s relationship with the politics of the broader region. We might do well to remember that, without absolving any individual actor of their sins in more recent times, the very structure of the political and state system in the Syria (and across the virtually the entire region) as it stands is itself a product of acts undertaken by European politicians and military experts keen on exerting their influence. 

As the more recent example of western ‘intervention’ in Iraq demonstrates, the promises of a quick, limited and effective campaign designed to liberate a population from tyranny has backfired on a profound scale. It is worth remembering that, 10 years after the UK and US went to 'liberate' Iraq, the violence has not subsided. More than 80 people were killed in car bombs yesterday in Baghdad and about 1,500 people have been killed in the past two months.

Furthermore, according to conservative estimates, more than 114,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq since the west’s last foray into Mesopotamia. The country is now a closer ally to Iran than even Syria and the 'democracy' the allies went to build is dominated by another corrupt, vindictive and increasingly authoritarian regime.

This is not to compare Iraq and Syria directly – that would be foolish, and I concede that there are, of course, other examples that will be used to demonstrate when foreign military intervention leads to a qualified success – but the Iraq example is sufficient to show that the consequences of military intervention is highly unpredictable in both the short and long term. It can be hugely costly in terms of blood, treasure and prestige and, after all that, can still completely backfire. This is not a warning that should be taken lightly.

What we don’t know

Perhaps the final point to consider is the most chilling. If it is the case that Bashar al-Assad ordered the use of chemical weapons then he would have done so with full knowledge of the US and its allies, threats and promises of retaliation. In other words, he would have known that whatever ‘punishment’ that appears likely to be meted out to his regime was on its way. Yet, he did it anyway.

If this is the case, then we should ask ourselves: what does this say about the nature of the regime the west is about to attack? In this context, isn’t it at least reasonable to assume that Assad’s forces are now expecting whatever comes? Perhaps not. The simple truth is that we don’t know. It may be the case that Assad will not be cowed by the air strikes. But if not, then what?

One thing is certain: having acted once against the regime in Syria, western powers will have at once both raised the stakes and obviated any chance to walk away. If Assad’s forces act again to murder more people on a similar scale or by similar means (or indeed if a rebel group does the same), then western allies will have no choice but to commit to further action with greater ferocity or face abandoning those ‘international norms’ that they claim to be so strongly committed to. If and when this next campaign begins, it will rapidly take on a logic of its own and there is no telling where it will end. 

We know that the Assad is villainous, criminal and, for all intents and purposes, evil. We know that chemical weapons are horrific tools of slaughter. But the point is that: it is what we don’t know that should trouble us. Even with the best will in the world, the gut wrenching need to 'do something' should not be confused with doing the right thing or the smart thing, or doing/not doing that which will lead to the best possible outcome. Right now nobody knows what that is, and therefore the only reasonable conclusion to draw is that an attack that piles more destruction on top of an already profound tragedy cannot be the answer to anything.

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