The World is holding its breath, and for now that seems to be all that we can do.
Western leaders have made much of their outrage at the alleged use of chemical weapons in Damascus last week, I say alleged because no one is prepared to say that it is undoubted, and even then there will be those that deny it, and so as ever truth is in the mind of the beholder. Meanwhile, China and Russia have made their voices heard, loudly warning against any form of military intervention and more than suggesting that any contravention of their veto will at least be met by wholehearted and material support of the Assad regime in the face of such intervention, if not their actual entry into the theatre of war.
For decades there have been theoretical discussions about the Levantine Crescent’s potential to become the crucible for the Third World War, and yet recent history has seemed to allay those fears. Nonetheless, the sabre rattling on both sides and the high-pitched keening of the World’s media do seem to suggest that one ought to consider at least the possibility that Syria may be the straw that will break the camel’s back.
The Western position is easy to swallow and yet hard to digest. Moral outrage at the use of chemical weapons seems to be providing the pretext for what our inglorious leaders are going to sell to us as justification for military intervention along purely humanitarian lines, but is there truly a basis for belief in this idea, the Unicorn of International Politics, the Doctrine of Humanitarian Intervention?
If one were to define this elusive concept, I imagine that the definition would read something like this:
“It is our belief, as the United Nations, that there is justification for military intervention in the affairs of sovereign states, when the plight of the innocent civilians is threatened beyond doubt, all other avenues of redress have been attempted and exhausted without success and the sole reward for intervention would be the protection from harm of the innocent.”
It is pretty difficult to argue with this on a moral basis – all of us are likely to think that it is acceptable to employ violence to prevent more harm once reason and bargaining have failed – so why am I questioning the sales pitch? Put simply, there is greater vested interest in choosing to intervene than simple moral principle.
- First and foremost the UN cannot allow contravention of the worldwide ban on the use of chemical and biological weapons to pass unpunished – it would confirm its status as a paper tiger, once and for all.
- The growing tide of concern amongst Western intelligence communities and the wider public consciousness that radical organisations, such as Al Quaeda, are fighting cheek by jowl with the Syrian rebels means that the endgame of the rebellion managing to win would logically mean the realisation of a large risk that radicals may be in a position to access chemical weapons stock-piled by the Assad regime, along with any other materiel that might pose an equally terrifying set of possibilities.
- Syria continues to represent a crucial strategic choke-point in the Levant, and this abuse of chemical weapons represents the perfect pretext upon which to mount an intervention designed to ensure that the West will, in all likelihood, control the outcome of the civil war and be in a position, despite the countless lessons of history, to engineer Syria’s immediate future politically, in line with its own political and foreign policy agenda.
There is no way in which the Western leaders who are currently quivering with outrage in public are not considering these angles, and perhaps other more subtle ones that have not as yet occurred to me, but the above alone constitutes a basis for rejecting that intervention in Syria could truly fall under only the umbrella of a Doctrine of Humanitarian Intervention.
So, what is left?
Well for one thing, even with the fact that the Humanitarian and / or Moral imperatives may be coloured by self-interest, it is hard to deny that there are strong reasons for getting involved, and that leads to wider and more dangerous questions.
A good deal of media commentary seems to be espousing the likelihood of a series of “stand-off” attacks designed to provide a proportional yet meaningful response to last weeks alleged chemical attack, but what do tomahawk and smart-bomb attacks on key military installations really amount to? Are they not just “the price of doing business”? Do they not serve a more complex agenda for Assad if what he hopes to gain by crossing Obama’s red line is to force Russia and China to step into the ring on his side, thereby giving him the muscle he needs to defeat the rebels quickly before the Western powers get boots on the ground? More than that, if you are experiencing moral outrage and a desire to punish, why would anyone stop at just a slap in the face? If the Assad regime is responsible and the West is truly outraged, then surely the idea of giving Assad a spanking and then patting one another on the back at a job well done is ludicrous?
For the sake of form I would like to point out that I am not in favour of any intervention, but only because I see intervention in Syria as the road to unfettered escalation and that risk is not balanced by the rewards, even the unspoken self-serving rewards that go far beyond a claiming of the high moral ground.
What I would say is that if the West is to intervene then it is high time we acknowledged the fact that this is serious job of “wet work” and the only intervention that is likely to serve both pubic satisfaction and achieve the strategic wins to go along with the moral victory, hollow though it may be, is to go “all in”. Not only should the Western powers deploy ground forces to the area, they should do so in staggering scale. Those ground troops should have the broadest definition of the rules of engagement, that reads along the lines of “anyone holding a weapon that is not a part of the Allied force is an enemy combatant and may be fired upon unless they offer an unconditional surrender”, and they should be supported by overwhelming air power, continued tactical attacks and an unswerving rejection of the notion that there will be an end in sight. If we are going to attempt to intervene militarily we should, from the get go, make sure that we win, and that we are clear in our acceptance of loss of life as an inevitability for our forces, other military powers in the theatre of war and the innocent. Anything less is a lie. Anything less is waste of time and effort and money and blood. If we are so sure that we know better than another sovereign state, then there is no other option than to play to win.
Will the public, in the West or anywhere else for that matter, have the stomach for an honest to goodness war? If the warnings coming from the East turn into action will Obama, Cameron and Hollande relish the judgement of history as they become the men who began the Third World War? Will our children’s children go on guided tours of the glass forests in the Levant when all of that sand has been turned to glass by what will no doubt be spun as an unfortunate slip in the checks and balances on the command and control of Russian nuclear weapons, or perhaps Allied ones, or Chinese ones, or Israeli ones?
I realise that it is a worst case scenario, but how can we even be considering a course of action that will set into motion the kind of international brinksmanship the like of which we have not seen for seventy years?
Do not misunderstand me, I weep for the Syrian people – the last two years have been a long season in Hell for all of them, combatant and civilian alike – but when has the lesson of history taught us that military intervention is anything other than the rockier of roads? Could we not bring our massive economic and logistical might to bear to flood Syria with medical aid, doctors and core humanitarian supplies? Could we not all chip in to pay Turkey back for not only the half a million refugees that they have already given shelter to, but to offer them recompense for any number of others that wish to escape? Is there not mileage in continuing to allow for the possibility that like wild fires, sometimes civil war is a tragic necessity, and that we would be better served by building a fire break than pouring petrol on the situation?
There will be time enough to bring Assad and his generals, or the leaders of the rebellion come to that, before the proper authorities (in the Hague no doubt) to answer for their crimes against humanity, if they don’t kill each other first. When the dust settles there will be plenty of opportunity for the International community to exert its influence over the new incumbent to surrender the remaining chemical weapons for confiscation and destruction, assuming of course that they are not used up in the interval.
Whatever happens, my fondest hope is that the West might stop and count to ten and take a breath, and if then there is still an unshakeable desire to wage war I do not want to hear about moral imperatives or “just war”. I want our leaders to be honest about the calculations that will have brought us to that pass and the breadth and depth of all the reasons for deciding to kill a lot of people and then, only then turn their faces to the cameras and speak the truth about the choices that have been made.
I would not want to be David Cameron, François Hollande or worse still Barack Obama* this week – they are prisoners of the moment, no matter how much they might tell themselves that they are the leaders of the (free) World, and to be so caught between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea must feel like little more than fate’s cruel joke. Whatever they decide, assuming we are not all speaking Chinese in three to five years’ time, history will be the only reliable indication of their legacy.
(*I say “worse still” on the basis that it has been my observation that as a nation, the US has tended to be more warlike in recent years than France or the UK, but that may be a slanted perception, and so I expect that he is feeling even greater pressure to throw down with Assad than the others.)