The drumbeats of a new Western military intervention in the Middle East are beating louder and louder. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday it was “undeniable” that chemical weapons had been used in an attack last week in Damascus. Meanwhile, the British foreign secretary said the UK and its allies could launch a military intervention without the approval of the United Nations. This is because a U.N. resolution authorising an attack on Syria would almost certainly be blocked by Russia.
The desire to do something to punish Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime is understandable, particularly after last week’s gas attack. But the West still mustn’t rush in. Before it takes any military action, it needs to present compelling evidence that Assad is the culprit. Any intervention should also be a specific response to the gas attack rather than suck the West into this ghastly civil war.
Many people will argue that we already have the evidence we need to know that Assad is guilty. The weapons were used in a part of Damascus where his troops had been vainly trying to dislodge rebels. Assad has a big stash of chemical weapons and the means to deliver them. What’s more, he refused to give U.N. investigators immediate access to the site – seemingly the action of a man who wants to cover up a crime rather than that of an innocent who has been slandered.
This is all strong circumstantial evidence. But none of it amounts to proof. That matters because we have seen dossiers sexed up before – notably the one used by Tony Blair to justify the invasion of Iraq. It also matters because, as with Iraq, any intervention in Syria will probably have to be undertaken without U.N. approval. It is not in the West’s interests to undermine the U.N.’s authority any further. Just look at its intervention in Libya in 2011, which went beyond what the U.N. authorised. Russia has used that as an excuse to block U.N. resolutions on Syria.
While the West should not deny itself the possibility of going outside the U.N. framework in exceptional circumstances, the circumstances do need to be truly exceptional. In this case, that at least means having hard evidence and presenting it to world opinion – so that all but the most bone-headed will agree that Russia is willfully denying the truth if it vetoes a U.N. resolution.
The U.N. inspectors, who briefly reached the site of the attack on Monday, may be able to provide some evidence – although much of it has probably now been obliterated. Kerry also says America has “additional information” which it will provide in the coming days. If this evidence is not compelling, the West should hold fire.
There will be those who say that the failure to take action will give Assad a green light for further chemical attacks. But that’s not so. If he continues to gas his opponents, as well as innocent civilians, the evidence will eventually become compelling.
Those advocating immediate action say delaying will just mean more people will be killed. But over 100,000 people have already been killed in Syria, with many atrocities on all sides of the civil war. These have allegedly included castrating a boy and eating the heart of a dead enemy. Last week’s chemical weapons attack, which may have killed around 1,000 people, is gruesome but not obviously more heinous than much of what has gone before.
What makes the use of chemical weapons special is that, as Kerry put it, the civilised world decided long ago that they must not be used at all. This means that a failure to punish their use by Assad might amount to a green light for others to use them in future. But still, it’s necessary to have proof.
Even if proof can be produced, military intervention must be aimed at punishing Assad – not at trying to swing the civil war in a particular direction. Early on in the conflict, it was possible to say that the rebels were the good guys and Assad was the bad guy. But now al Qaeda and other extremist groups have joined the rebels. While some advocates of intervention think the West should supply sophisticated weapons to the remaining moderates, there’s a great risk that arms will fall into the wrong hands and moderates will become extremists. Meanwhile, the West rightly doesn’t have the stomach for putting troops on the ground, following the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Western powers would need to be crystal clear about the purpose of any intervention. The aim would be to punish the use of chemical weapons to avoid a precedent being set, not to try to help those suffering in this ghastly civil war.
If we are really motivated by humanitarian feelings, there are other things we can do. We should give much more aid to the 1.7 million Syrians who have already registered as refugees and the countless others who haven’t. We should support anything resembling civil society in Syria. While it may not have any chance of achieving much in the near future, it will be needed when the war ends. Finally, we should give as much help as possible to neighbouring countries such as Lebanon which risks getting engulfed in the conflict. The West should do all this, whether or not it launches a military strike.