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Syria, Chemical Weapons and Intervention

by John Strawson

It is evident that a humanitarian disaster has occurred in the Damascus suburbs and chemical weapons attacks in Ghouta have lead to the deaths of hundreds and the suffering of thousands. Chemical weapons are illegal and those who ordered their use and those who then used them must be held to account. While UN weapons inspectors collect evidence that the international community will require it is important to consider what the appropriate reaction to the use of chemical weapons should be. The United States, Britain and France are, it appears, considering some form military response. From reports it seems that the three powers have already determined that the Assad regime was responsible and that some type of missile attack would be appropriate. If this were the case I would argue that this sounds more like a punitive mission rather than the humanitarian intervention that is required.

Since the conflict began in Syria over two years ago far too many states in the international community have taken sides for or against the Assad regime, As the death tool mounted – to now well over 100,000 – the United States, the EU, Iran and Russia have seemed more concerned with their interests in the strategic outcome than with the suffering of Syrian civilians. It is about time that this was reversed and that the people of Syria were put first. The issue is not punishing one side or the other but preventing any further use of illegal weapons and of ensuring that that victims of the present attacks are properly cared for. This may well require military intervention to achieve this. Both the Assad government and the rebel forces need to be disarmed of such weapons. A cruise missile attack will not achieve this but just destabilize the region even further.

What policy-makers need to consider is a package of legal, diplomatic and military measures that center on the need to protect civilians. First it should be made clear that individuals involved in chemical attacks whether in the government or the rebels will be prosecuted either at the ICC (via a United Nations Security Council referral) or through a special constituted international criminal tribunal. Second the UN secretary general should convene talks between all the various parties once the UN weapons inspectors report. The United States, the EU, Iran and Russia need to keep contacts open on the question. States with a genuine objective of protecting civilians should prepare a military plan for intervention with clear and limited objectives; disarming both sides of weapons of mass destruction and creating conditions for delivering humanitarian relief to all civilians.


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