Friday 26 April 2013

Syria: is the horror-meter still not high enough?

For nearly two years, Western governments have been looking for reasons not to send troops to Syria. And despite the most recent claims about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, they're still looking.

According to the US defence secretary Chuck Hagel: "Our intelligence community does assess, with varying degrees of confidence, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically, the chemical agent sarin."

There are two key phrases in that sentence: "varying degrees of confidence", and "on a small scale."

The UK foreign office says it has "limited but persuasive information from various sources" of chemical weapons having been used in Syria. Again, note the caveat: "limited". It doesn't take a genius, does it, to work out that they are treading very, very gently.

This morning, David Cameron said there is "limited but growing" evidence that Syrian government troops have used chemical weapons. It is, he said, "extremely serious, this is a war crime."

Why does the chemical weapons issue matter? Because for many months now, President Obama has said that if the Syrian military use chemical weapons against rebel forces, they will have "crossed a red line". As recently as last month, he said: "We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people."

So, what does "we will not tolerate" mean? Last August, Mr Obama said the use of chemical weapons "would change my calculus … That would change my equation.” Last month, he told Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, that if such weapons were used, “the world is watching, we will hold you accountable.”

But last night, in a letter to US senators, the White House said merely that it will now press "for a comprehensive United Nations investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place."

The watch-word is caution, not a call to arms.

No one should be surprised if governments treat intelligence assessments these days with a high degree of caution. If the Iraq experience taught them anything, it was that the spooks don't always get it right. "Evidence" of chemical or other so-called weapons of mass destruction is not always quite what it seems.

So let's put all that to one side, take a couple of steps back and ask a basic question. What is the desired goal in Syria? Suppose it's simply an end to the bloodshed, after the deaths of at least 70,000 people over the past two years, more than 6,000 of them last month alone.

Would foreign military intervention end the bloodshed? Well, we have some precedents to guide us. Bosnia, for example, in 1995, or Kosovo in 1999, where foreign military intervention did end the slaughter of civilians. Ditto in Sierra Leone in 2000, and East Timor in 2006.

In Iraq, a reviled dictator, Saddam Hussein, guilty of having used chemical weapons against his own people (the Kurds in Halabja in 1988), was overthrown and executed. Likewise in Libya, where foreign military action enabled local rebel forces to overthrow, and then murder, another reviled dictator, Muammar Gaddafi.

But the Iraq and Libya precedents aren't as clear-cut as some pro-intervention advocates might like. Sure, the tyrants were toppled -- but did the killing stop? On the contrary: in Iraq, certainly, and in Libya to a somewhat lesser extent, the level of the killing was actually higher after the foreign intervention than before.

It's more than a year now since the secretary-general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, asked the key question: if international military forces were to intervene in Syria, how likely do you think it is that they would be able to create a sustainable solution to the crisis?

The unfortunate truth, as I pointed out at the time, is that there is always a risk that by stepping in to prevent people dying, you end up being responsible for even more people dying. There is no iron rule of politics that says that what follows a brutal dictator will always be better than what went before.

None of this means I think foreign intervention in Syria is necessarily a bad idea. There may well come a time when the sheer horror of what is happening there is too much for Western (and some Arab) governments to stomach.

For now, though, it looks to me as if the assessment in Washington, London and Paris is that we have not yet reached that moment. Callous though it may sound, the needle on the horror-meter has not yet gone high enough.

There's one other factor for you to consider: it still looks inconceivable that if there is to be foreign military intervention, it will have the backing of the UN security council. So if you were against the intervention in Iraq on the grounds that it wasn't approved by the UN, you need to come up with a good reason why that wouldn't matter in Syria.


Anonymous said...

Dear Robin, I wonder what you think of the line of argument that goes:

The Syrian opposition is eager for western support.

The west has declared use of chemical weapons a red line, presumably triggering that support.

Therefore the main group to benefit from the appearance of chemical weapons is the opposition.

Does this thinking have any merit?


Tinkersdamn said...

Media accounts of intelligence that Assad ordered the use of chemical weapons seem very riddled. Why would he invite Western intervention in exchange for such limited use of this weaponry?

It also doesn't make sense (as your blog, unlike US media reports, notes) when advocates for intervention portray their objective as an act of humanitarian concern for the Syria people. The Western intervention necessary to the degree that we could secure their stockpiles of weapons against both the Assad and rebel forces with less Syrian casualties than were we not to intervene, surely couldn't be supported by even riddled intelligence. This point must be made clearly and publicly now, so we don't hear for years that it's 20/20 hindsight.

If interventionists wish to argue these incidents may be a sign that a rogue Syrian officer obtained small amounts of sarin weaponry, and indicate Assad has lost some control, fine, let them make that argument. Let's just not get into yet another war with a public dialogue of near complete fantasy.

(I'm still hopeful the high profile concern issued from the White House, may be an order of sorts that Assad see to it he regain complete control of his chemical weapons.)

dceilar said...

It seems to me Robin that the overthrow of Assad will 'destablize' the region more than with him in charge - even though he was never a friend of the West. There seems to be a genuine fear of who will replace him and what will their policy be on reclaiming the Golan Heights and on Israel generally. There's also the minor issue of Lebanon and Iraq.

Another key factor of why the horror-meter is not high enough is that NATO's commitment to Responsibility To Protect (RTP) is very selective in who it protects. The Gen Secretary of NATO said a few years ago that the new goal of the organisation was to protect the energy lanes of its members. I know not of any such energy lanes in Syria.

I haven't even mentioned yet the regime's support from Russia, China, and Iran; and that Obama does not have to worry about being re-elected. So no, the horror-meter is still not high enough. Islamic extremism may push the dial into the red for Russia.

Gaye Berry said...

The South Pars gas fields – the largest in the world – are shared by Iran & Qatar. Tehran & Doha have developed an extremely "delicate" operation.

The key (unstated) reason for Qatar to be so obsessed by regime change in Syria is to kill the $10 billion IRAN-IRAQ-SYRIA PIPELINE, which was agreed upon in July 2011

The same applies to Turkey, because this pipeline would bypass Ankara, which always bills itself as the key energy crossroads between East & West.

It’s crucial to remember that the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline is ANATHEMA to US. The difference is that Washington in this case can count on its allies Qatar and Turkey for sabotage.

This means sabotaging not only Iran but also the ‘Four Seas’ strategy announced by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2009, according to which Damascus should become a Pipelineistan hub connected to the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, the Persian Gulf & the Eastern Mediterranean.

The foregoing strategy marks a Syria intimately connected with Iranian – and not Qatari – energy flows. Iran-Iraq-Syria is known in the region as the ‘friendship pipeline.’ Typically, Western corporate media derides it as the ‘Islamic’ pipeline.

What makes it even more ridiculous is that gas in this pipeline would flow to Syria and then Lebanon – and from there to energy-starved European markets close by.

The Pipelineistan games get even more complicated when we add the messy Iraqi Kurdistan/Turkey love-in – detailed here by Erimtan Can – and the recent gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean involving territorial waters of Israel, Palestine, Cyprus, Egypt, Lebanon & Syria; some, or perhaps all of these actors could turn from energy importers to energy exporters.

Israel will have a clear option to send its gas via a pipeline to Turkey, and then export it to Europe; that goes a long way to explain the recent phone calls between Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan and Israel’s Netanyahu, (brokered by Obama).

It looks to me that the RED LINE amounts to this: It doesn't matter how many Syrians are killed; it doesn't matter who kills then - IT'S STILL ENDLESSLY, EVILLY, INEVITABLY ALL ABOUT energy - black gold.