In his 2012 book, Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, historian David W. Lesch raised an important question: what happens if Assad doesn’t fall from power? Although the conflict has been going on for almost two and a half years, politicians in Washington, London and elsewhere have begun to entertain the idea of an intervention.
The so-called “red line,” a euphemism adopted by the West to describe the use of chemical or biological weapons in Syria, was violated last week when hundreds of civilians allegedly suffered from neurotoxic symptoms associated with the use of chemical weaponry. A UN inquiry into whether Assad’s forces employed the nerve gas continues to investigate the issue, although it’s certain that a chemical agent was used in the country.
That it took the use of chemical agents, and not necessarily the murdering of over 100,000 Syrians, for the West to discuss intervention is disconcerting. Unsurprisingly, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (who possess the power to veto any resolution) have not come to an agreement on the British proposal to authorize the use of military force, while the UN has asked members to give diplomacy more time.
In previous posts, we’ve explored the idea of suffering as it relates to the history of humanitarian intervention. As governments in the west prepare for a potential strike, the details of which remain sketchy but will probably come in the form of air strikes, we might very well raise a question that we’ve asked before: are the people of Syria suffering more now that we know chemical weapons have been employed against civilians?
Many bloggers and writers have pointed to historical parallels, which can be helpful but also problematic. Some have tried to understand the war in Syria against the backdrop of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that Britain and other states supply the Syrian opposition with weapons. Others have specifically focused on the NATO-led air war against Serbian forces in Kosovo in 1999 which aimed to prevent further ethnic cleansing in that region. This has formed what some call the “Kosovo precedent” for intervention in Syria.
Faisal al Yafai from The National has suggested that the “squeamishness” of the West over intervention in Syria is a direct result of the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In many respects, this is understandable, which is why if intervention does occur it will be done with limited liability (a terrible term because more civilians will be affected) in the form of airstrikes on key targets. It’s for that same reason that drawing parallels can be problematic. Decisions to wage war are not made in a political vacuum, and the strength of American foreign policy has been made blunt by financial crises and an increasingly critical electorate, many of whom won’t support another war in the Middle East. The optimism of the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s is long gone.
Yet, however war wary the West may be, the UN has a fundamental responsibility to protect. Whether the UN possesses a roadmap to intervene effectively, however, is another matter.
Another important question to consider is how definitive the “red line” regarding chemical weapons really is. Did President Obama and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron want to intervene but did not have sufficient popular support? Perhaps they needed a necessary rallying point. In 1914, the British Cabinet was fully prepared to go to war in support of their continental ally France, but Britons did not support intervention until Germany's invasion of neutral Belgium on 1 August. Belgium was a convenient reason to bring onside the British people and some hesitant members of the Cabinet. Is the use of chemical weapons in Syria a similarly convenient pretext?
We should also ask whether chemical weapons can be considered Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). The term WMD appeared with such great frequency leading up to and during the war in Iraq, but now it’s rarely used in the press. The possession of WMDs by Saddam Hussein was reason enough for the full-scale invasion of Iraq in 2003, even if it was grounded in dubious claims. If Assad actually possesses WMDs, and more, using them against Syrians, precedent suggests that the West, or at least the United States, must intervene regardless of whether it has UN or NATO support. Precedent is, however, often ignored in international relations.
In the end, intervention on humanitarian grounds embodies a paradox. There is a great gulf between the theory of intervention versus its praxis. Over two years has passed during which Assad’s regime brutally killed civilians before western governments have started to seriously consider intervention in Syria. Is this because of the entangled relations in the region, as Russia and Iran continue to back Assad’s regime, while the US cannot fully support (or trust) such disparate groups comprising the opposition? This is what we’ve called the American “foreign policy dilemma.” The news of chemical weapons being employed in Syria might have been just the news Western governments needed to engage Syria without straining the already tense relations between Russia and the US. With proof that chemical agents were used on civilians, it’s unlikely that Russia could reasonably dispute intervention in Syria. The even bigger question, however, is will a post-Assad Syria bring peace and stability to the region?