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.
In a matter of two days the Syrian crisis has been internationalized yet again. Three developments underline this: the European Union lifting the arms embargo, the Russian delivery of S-300 miles to the Assad government and the public announcement by Hezbollah of military support for the regime. For the time being the cockpit of the struggle is the battle over Qusair and critical town on the Lebanese border. It is here that Hezbollah fighters – numbered at between 5,000 -7,000 – are battling rebel held positions. Selim Idriss the Free Syrian Army chief has already denounced what he calls the ‘invasion of Syria.’ The US and some other Western governments have called for Hezbollah to withdraw. A slightly contradictory position as the same governments have been coordinating policy with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar who are supporting some tens of thousand foreign fighters. By ending the arms embargo and by announcing the arms could be with the rebels by August 1, William Hague the British foreign minister was effectively firing a starting gun for an arms race. The actions of the Russians and Hezbollah are clearly designed to ensure that the Assad government has a clear military advantage before August arrives.
All this casts a dark shadow over the Russian-US plan for a Geneva peace conference in June. Already the battle over Qusair has been used as an excuse by the opposition to refuse to go the event while the fighting continues – claiming that massacre of the town’s inhabitants threatens if the government wins. It should be pointed out that when the rebels took the town they ethnically cleansed the 10,000 strong Christian population. The truth is that what began as rising of Syrian civilians demanding reform has now transformed into an internationalized civil war along sectarian grounds. This has brought all their major regional and international powers into play: US, Russian, Britain, France, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. This is the old Middle East and not the new. We have yet another round big power rivalry where the interests of the Syrian people are lost amongst a host of other national self-interests. The 80,000 civilian deaths, mass displacement and the growing refugee problem should be the center of concern not who will gain from the victory of one side of the other. The axis of colonialism, the old East- West conflict and the sectarian division in the region are exacerbating an already dangerous situation. This threatens the stability of neighboring state, especially Lebanon and Iraq and also a generalized war. The international community needs to pull back from the current policy of backing one side or another and adopt a Syria first position. It has to be accepted that there are no good sides and what the people of Syria need is a ceasefire and compromise on the political future. This means a genuine diplomatic effort to stop the fighting, and to do that the arms race must stop.