A SHIVER of apprehension ran down my
spine when I heard that Downing Street has said that the UK is
drawing up contingency plans for military action in response to the
chemical weapons attack in Syria. And the Foreign Secretary William
Hague said that unilateral military action might be needed without
the sanction of the United Nations.
We have been here before, as we were
reminded when Tony Blair joined the debate this week, saying that
the enduring controversy over his decision to invade Iraq in 2003
should not stop politicians from acting now on Syria. We should
stop wringing our hands, he said. But military action is not the
only alternative to hand-wringing. It is by no means clear that all
other means are exhausted.
In the United States, President Obama
painted himself into a corner last year by saying that the use of
chemical weapons would be a "red line" which, if crossed, would
force US intervention.
Now they have indisputably been used.
Yet, although the West seems to be of one mind that the Assad
regime is responsible, we have not yet seen the proof, and that
matters. Chemical weapons, Washington said this week, were a "moral
obscenity". Some weapons are certainly more horrific than others.
Chemical weapons raise our levels of disgust and outrage. But it is
not clear that they alter the moral argument.
An application of the precepts of the
just war shows this. Intervening to prevent the killing of children
and other innocents is clearly a just cause. Right intention is
evident, too. But the just-war criteria demand that force is a last
resort, has competent authority, is proportionate, and has a good
prospect of success. None of these are fully present.
Although the international diplomatic
situation is fixed, it is not yet a stalemate. Russia has made
movement in agreeing to force Syria to allow UN weapons inspectors
to the site where 300 or more died last week. Competent authority
would suggest a resolution by the UN Security Council, on which
Syria's allies Russia and China have a veto. The requirement is not
absolute; Kosovo was a just intervention without a UN resolution,
but Iraq showed how problems can arise from precipitate action.
Proportion sounds plausible, with the
talk of a single air strike to signal to President Assad that he
cannot use chemical weapons with impunity. But history suggests
that air strikes have a tendency to escalate. In the past, they
have led to Western boots on the ground, and situations from which
exit strategies become tricky to devise, and which radicalise the
opposition. But escalation could also spread the conflict to
Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, and even Iran. Where would arguments
about proportionality stand then?
The "prospect of success" is deeply
problematic, too, for it is not even clear what would constitute
success. The Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, showed
some insight on this, when he asked whether military action would
or could simply "degrade Assad's chemical-weapons capability", or
whether it would involve taking sides in a bitter civil war. Since
al-Qaeda is prominent in the rebel alliance, this is not a simple
The outraged demand that "something
must be done" should not bully us into doing the wrong thing. A
signal needs to be sent to President Assad that he cannot use
chemical weapons with impunity. But it could yet be diplomatic.
Russia and Iran were both pressured to shift on their intransigence
against UN weapons inspections. That has shown that the
international disunity on which the Assad regime has relied need
not be permanent. There is more to be achieved by diplomacy before
the Cruise missiles are dispatched.