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


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

But while the march toward engagement continues apace – the British Parliament has been recalled, 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 – it is worth reflecting on the background to the conflict and considering, carefully, the possible consequences of action or inaction.

Thus this short article highlights three major areas of concern that, one would hope, would give the advocates of war cause for a few moments’ thought. These are: (a) that though the evidence of chemical weapon use seems pretty clear, the issue of who used them is not nearly as clear cut; (b) the international norms over the use of chemical weapons are more ambiguous than they might first appear; and (c) the potential consequences of military action are entirely unknowable in the long term.

The question over evidence

It was perhaps all too predictable that following the emergence of the video from the 21 August attack that the Asad regime would both deny responsibility for it and also prevent UN inspectors into the area to verify that denial. By doing so, according to John Kerry, the Syrian regime forfeited whatever scraps of legitimacy it had left. Also predictable was the fact that while the US has expressed absolute certainty that Asad was responsible, the Russian government articulated its belief in the official Syrian government’s line; that a rebel groups were behind the attack.

The reality is that there is probably no way to know the truth at this point. The US government has promised to release intelligence that, it claims, substantiates its argument and there are now UN weapons inspectors researching the incidents. (Though what evidence it has released so far is certainly open to interpretation). Yet the fact that there is such a rush to engage in a response means that there will be little time for anyone outside the decision making apparatus of those western governments to properly consider that evidence.

Certainly there must be at least some doubt as to the official western narrative. Asad’s forces have proven themselves bloodthirsty, corrupt and barbaric – but that is not the same as being irrational or suicidal. With this in mind it is hard to see any reasonable strategic rationale for the Syrian regime to act in such a way if it knew that, by doing so, it would be likely to provoke the West’s wrath.

If it wasn’t Asad, was it a rebel group? Perhaps, but unlikely.

According the UN human rights investigator, Carla del Ponte, rebel groups have used Sarin – a nerve agent – earlier in the conflict. Yet, this claim is disputed by a range of various other experts who suggest that no rebel group is likely to be responsible or even capable of carrying out such an attack.

The third and fourth possibilities are that, it if it wasn’t the regime and it wasn’t the rebels, could it have been an external party or a rogue element within the regime?

On the first count – it is hard to see any rationale for a secret plot by any of the three main western advocates for war or one its allies to draw itself into to a conflict as complex as Syria only to conduct the kind of limited strikes that are now under discussion. Moreover the possibility of a nefarious plot to by one of Syria’s antagonistic neighbours – Israel, Turkey or Jordan – seems highly unlikely as they will have been keen to avoid the possibility of normalising chemical weapon use in this conflict or add to the – already extremely difficult to control – impact of the conflict on their own national interests.

Finally, it is not inconceivable that there are splinters within the regime. Indeed, though Syria’s government is often presented as monolithic, there is precedent for internal conflict. For instance, in 1983 – in the year following former president’s Hafez al-Asad’s bloody crackdown on Homs – Rifaat, his younger brother, launched a failed attempt at a coup and was later sent in to exile. Given the current disorder and under the fog of war, it is certainly possible that there may be some confusion in chain of command or even that some commanders are pursuing their own agenda or acting beyond their authority.

In short, regardless of which narrative appears most compelling at this point, there are certainly enough doubts about any of them to require that further examination of the available evidence before any action is taken.

International Norms

The issue of international norms is at the heart of each of the three western governments’ rhetoric. Ostensibly this makes sense. The logic is as follows: the use of chemical weapons has been outlawed for more than 100 years. They comprise is an intolerable threat to civilians and military personnel alike and therefore it is only reasonable that those states that are capable of acting, do so in order to deter their further use.

However, on closer inspection, it becomes evidently 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 the Western allies .

The Chemical Weapons Convention, passed in 1993, has signed and ratified by 189 states. However, both Israel and Myanmar have signed the treaty but not ratified it while Angola, Egypt, North Korea, South Sudan and Syria have not signed it. Obviously the fact the 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 that have a strong history of alliance with the US and, to a lesser extent, the main European powers. This is somewhat more problematic. Indeed, it raises the question: if the US, UK and France are so concerned with enforcing the international norm of prohibiting chemical weapons, when then have they failed to use their influence to ensure that their allies both sign and ratify the treaty that outlaws their use?

saddam-husseinThe second part of this question over the universal application of this norm is in its lack of enforcement following their previous use by Saddam Husain’s forces throughout the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and 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 the Western powers and according to recently declassified documents the US’ reaction was characterised by little more than ambivalence. As Foreign Policy reported yesterday:

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, that 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 to put this issue in simple terms in application to his conflict: the message that these events will be likely to carry to both Asad and his foes is that killing a vast number of civilians through some means is acceptable while killing a lesser number through other means is a 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’, or in other words: the US and UK leaderships have concluded that, in light of the chemical weapons attack “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 what the potential consequences of this Western action might be that 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.

Indeed, 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 today in Baghdad and about 1,500 people have been killed in the past two months.

Further, 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 now 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. They can be hugely costly in terms of blood, treasure and prestige and, after all that, they can still completely backfire. This is not a warning that should be taken lightly.

AsadPerhaps the final point to consider is the most chilling. If it is the case that Bashar al-Asad ordered the use of chemical weapons then he would have done so with full knowledge of the US, and its allies, threats and promises 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 Asad’s forces are now expecting whatever comes?

Perhaps not. The simple truth is we don’t know. But it may be the case that Asad will not be cowed by the air strikes. And if not then what?

One thing is certain: having acted once against the regime in Syria the Western powers will have at once both raised the stakes and obviated any chance to walk away. If the Asad’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 the 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. In short, if and when it 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 Asad is villainous, criminal and, for all intents and purposes, evil. We know that chemical weapons are horrific tools of slaughter. But my argument 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’ must not be confused with doing the right thing, or the smart thing, or doing/not doing will lead to the best – or least worst – 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 already profound tragedy cannot be the answer to anything.

1 Comment

  • Oliver Leech says:

    An excellent and very thought provoking paper. There is an interesting article in The Times (28 August, 2013) by Daniel Finkelstein about the way we are more concerned with acts of commission, i.e., doing something rather than acts of omission i.e., not doing something when both have consequences which can be very far-reaching.

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