The use of chemical weapons has changed the world’s view of the Syrian conflictby Prospect Team / September 18, 2013 / Leave a comment
This photograph shows the aftermath of the apparent chemical weapons attack that took place in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus on 21st August. British scientists found traces of sarin gas in samples taken from the scene. Until that day, for two and a half years, western powers had held back from a role in Syria’s war. Images of horror such as these made indifference impossible. They forced politicians to ask whether they should mount military action, although their voters recoil from it—or whether the off-the-cuff offer by John Kerry, US Secretary of State, of asking the Assad regime to surrender its stocks of weapons, would work. Prospect asked those who have spent their professional lives in such conflicts how we should now respond.
Humanitarian intervention Bernard Kouchner
Global solidarity, it seems, is in retreat. We thought we’d established a minimal sense of international responsibility, but Europeans and Americans have caught “compassion fatigue.” And so the polls measure the resistance of public opinion to the surgical strikes proposed by President Barack Obama and supported by the French President, François Hollande; and our closest friends, the British, on whom we had counted, refused in a parliamentary vote at Westminster to punish Bashar al-Assad.
Not long ago, at the turn of the century, in the face of the horrible spectacle of children suffocating and dying in the streets of Damascus, defenders of human rights would have taken to the streets and laid siege to the Syrian embassy. Then, when confronted with the bombardment of civilian populations, people got angry and claimed a “right of intervention” against crimes committed by others elsewhere. A universal demand for action was born which forced politicians to respond.
Today, no one marches in the streets of western capitals. The war in Iraq, with its falsifications and its uncertain outcomes, looms large in everybody’s memory: Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, brandishing a vial that could have contained anthrax in order to convince the United Nations of the necessity of war against Saddam Hussein; George W Bush urging a crusade against terrorism—these lies have neither been forgotten nor forgiven, even though Saddam is dead and the Kurds are building, in the north of Iraq, an oasis of peace and economic development.
The civil war in Syria has not aroused public sympathy. Enough, people say, with these entanglements in the Middle East that require sacrifices on the part of those who intervene and seem to benefit only extremists. Menaced by unemployment and fearful for their children’s futures, the majority of Europeans will no longer countenance military risks being taken. Why is it, they ask, that we seem to be permanently preoccupied with the wars and barbarities of others? Have we become global nurses tending to victims for whom we are not responsible?
Back in the late 1960s, there were a handful of us who didn’t remain inactive in the face of others’ misfortune. We were doctors and could work anywhere, across borders and in the name of a universal ethic. From Biafra to Kurdistan, if the patients called us, we came—especially if it was forbidden and often where it seemed impossible.
During the past 50 years, I have only ever gone to a war zone or famine area to take care of the sick and wounded. And if, as a doctor, I constructed first the notion of a duty to intervene and then a right to do so, this was only ever with the aim of reducing the number of civilian victims of these conflicts. We helped to ensure that these victims were recognised as the subjects of international law— the victims, and not the governments who spoke in their name.
It was a long and arduous task to get the United Nations to recognise the responsibility of the international community to care for the victims of natural disasters and conflict situations. We ran up against the same ferocious opposition as the proponents of intervention in Syria do today. In 1988, on a French initiative, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution declaring the principle of “freedom of access for organisations to victims of natural disasters and other emergency situations,” and in 1990 it endorsed the creation of “humanitarian corridors.”
Noting that the intervention of the international community almost invariably came too late, we sought to define a “responsibility to protect” (“R2P”) that imposed an obligation to act as early as possible in protection of human rights. International rescue organisations proliferated and would come to constitute a powerful interventionist lobby, a humanitarian machinery that would eventually lead to the UN’s adoption of R2P at the World Summit in 2005.
Had a combination of political and humanitarian action finally overcome nationalism, indifference and the taint of colonialism? Was international law going to triumph at last over the deniers and those who ignored the suffering of others? There were fierce debates in every case—from the Vietnamese boat people in the South China Sea to the death squads in El Salvador, from the Kurds threatened with genocide by Saddam Hussein to Rwanda, where genocide was televised, and from Lebanon, mired in eternal war, to Kosovo. Public opinion followed in our wake, and while governments dragged their feet and tried to maintain the divisions of the past, they nevertheless allowed their foreign policy to be coloured by a humanitarianism that had become an ideal for young people around the world.
It was in Libya in 2011 that, for the first time, the UN authorised a military action—in this case carried out by France and Britain—in the name of the doctrine of responsibility to protect. And now a difficult period is ahead of us. To take reprisals against the Syrian regime or not? Targeted strikes within days or the abandonment of the entire operation?
There are more fundamental questions to consider. Should we prefer a secular dictator to Islamist rebels? What will the effects of a military intervention be on the neighbouring countries? There are no good solutions in a civil war in Syria that has been accumulating atrocities for more than two years. And since there is an awful competition in excesses and outrages taking place on both sides, why favour one over the other?
Despite the misgivings of public opinion, both in France and the United States, the American and French governments remained ready to launch cruise missiles against designated military targets in Syria. And then suddenly came a proposal from Russia to place Syria’s chemical weapons under UN control. Was this in fact a last throw of the dice by the Russians and a victory for the west? The Russian gambit redounds to the credit of the US, France and the other countries which backed the use of force against Assad and were not prepared to countenance an evasion of responsibility this time.
Perhaps we should have intervened right at the beginning of the popular rebellion against Assad, at the moment when the rebels seemed to be authentic democrats preparing for yet another Arab spring? I thought that we should and I said as much at the time. But I also think that the movement of Arab peoples, after periods of retreat and despite the threats posed by Islamism, will, sooner or later, ensure the advance of democracy and a withering away of the influence of extremism. I have chosen which side I am on.
Bernard Kouchner, a former French Foreign Minister, is co-founder of Médecins sans Frontiers and Médecins du Monde
Pursue disarmament Zbigniew Brzezinski
The initiatives that began with the remarks of Secretary of State John Kerry are very important [Kerry suggested the US would not intervene in Syria if Assad gave up his chemical weapons to international control]. Perhaps they are a way of beginning to solve the Syrian problem without a potential regional escalation of violence.
[The US] should now consult very closely with our colleagues in the European Union, with Russia, and with the Chinese (and China has a long term interest in the stability of the Middle East). We need to form a process by which the issue of chemical weapons is used to open up a wider dialogue.
It is at least plausible to explore whether President Assad will hand over chemical weapons. That is potentially a more productive solution [than a missile strike].
Iran is a separate but related question. It is very important for the west in general and including the US to develop a serious, mutually respectful dialogue with the Iranians, especially given the recent Iranian elections [which resulted in the election of Hassan Rouhani, apparently more moderate than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad]. There are many ways to signal that [there is a desire to pursue such a dialogue].
The President has committed to hold the vote in Congress but it is perhaps redundant if the alternative of dialogue develops. Punitive strikes are justified only if this alternative proves impossible. [Prospect: Is there a place for Assad in any talks?] Remember that his term expires next year. [Prospect: Supposing he forgets?] There are people who will remind him.
The European Union has a part in this. It is going to be affected by stability in the Middle East, or an explosion. Britain’s relationship with the United States has not really been affected by the vote [against military action] in the House of Commons. The British are having the same kind of procedural difficulties that we have here, although they manifest themselves differently.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor to President Carter, is Counsellor and Trustee of the CSIS
Arm the opposition Emma Suleiman
This new initiative, to take away chemical weapons from the Assad regime, is too perfectly synchronised to be real. It is obvious that Russia and President Vladimir Putin know very well the situation in the United States—that Congress would find it very hard to vote [for military action]. President Obama’s aim is to find a way out of the crisis, and Putin has played on this. Everyone knows the west is not interested in intervening, because of its experience in Iraq, and economic crisis.
But the west is divided on how to end the crisis. Even though this [the initiative to remove chemical weapons from the regime] appears to be a solution, it carries many risks.
We all know Assad. He is buying more time, thinking that he could still win, the balance of power could change. He will invite the UN inspectors in, allow them here, but not there, and remember, no one knows exactly where the chemical weapons are or how much of it there is. There is no real accountability in the Russian proposal [for disarming Assad of these stockpiles]. Meanwhile, he will keep killing his people with conventional weapons. By the very fact that he agreed to hand over his chemical weapons arsenal, he has admitted he has it.
The spectacle should prove to the world that only the language of force has an effect. He has not gone for any compromise in the last two and a half years, but now he has agreed to go to Geneva [for peace talks] and perhaps to give up these weapons.
Why did he use them then [with UN inspectors already in the country]? Damascus is very sensitive, where his strength is, and he had been trying for two months to get into the small suburb where the shelling took place. But he has used chemical weapons 14 times before. And perhaps he thought that he could blame the use on a third party, on the opposition—as he always does.
Now, we want other countries to support moderates in the opposition. So far we have not received any weapons from the west—nothing for free. The [EU] embargo has been lifted and we have purchased weapons, but we have had to buy them. Inevitably, these are not all correctly distributed and some will go to the most extreme. But they are the minority, and rejected by the people.
Jabhat al-Nusra, associated with al Qaeda, have 7,000 fighters, 9,000 at most, more from other countries. The media give the wrong impression that they are the most powerful—that is not true—although they are very organised and well financed, partly from selling petrol.
The Free Syrian Army has between 60,000 and 80,000 fighters, of whom about 10-15 per cent are Salafists and Muslim Brothers. The rest are moderates.
It is impossible to go to the table at this point for talks. We need force, to bring back stability to the country. Even if Assad decides to go for a ceasefire, he cannot control all his forces, and some of them will not come for peace talks.
Emma Suleiman is a Paris-based spokesperson for the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (an umbrella group for opposition)
Intervention: moral, if not legal AC Grayling
During the Hutu massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, there were urgent calls from around the world for something to be done to protect the victims. Because the only effective way of doing it was to send in troops, nothing was done.
In an interview with CNBC after the event, President Bill Clinton said that if the US had promptly sent 10,000 troops into the country, 300,000 lives could have been saved—a third of those killed.
The sense that the international community had failed the Tutsis of Rwanda in part lay behind Nato’s involvement in the Kosovo conflict of 1998-9, when Yugoslav army action resulted in civilian deaths and the displacement of a quarter of a million people, many of them into freezing winter conditions without shelter.
Nato’s Kosovan intervention did not have UN support, despite the fact that the Security Council had passed a resolution shortly before (number 1199) expressing “grave concern” at the “excessive and indiscriminate use of force” by the Yugoslav army. Controversy over whether Nato’s involvement was “legal” therefore quickly arose; those saying it was illegal citing the absence of express UN licence for it, those on the other side citing the consistency of Nato’s actions with UN concerns and principles.
These precedents are among those that figure in thinking about possible intervention in Syria by outside powers. Naturally enough, prudential considerations weigh more with doubters than questions of principle; they always do. The bad experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan—in essence, getting bogged down in unwinnable conflicts at great expense to one’s own citizens’ lives and one’s own country’s money—are at the forefront of minds. Any sense of shame on the international community’s part at not lifting a finger to help the Tutsis in 1994 has largely faded; the deaths of tens of thousands of Syrian citizens, some in what seem to have been chemical poison attacks by the regime, scarcely seems to remind us of it.
The quarrel is now one between morality and legality. Military intervention in Syria by the US and other powers would be legal if there were a UN resolution licensing it. In the absence of such a resolution—and with Russia and China on the Security Council baulking at any such moves, that absence is likely to be permanent—the question becomes one entirely of moral acceptability. Is it acceptable to stand by while an over-armed regime inflicts brutalities on its own people in order to crush its rivals and retain power?
The prudentialists make a good point in reply: that the moral question is muddied by the fact that the inheritors of any victory over the Assad regime may not be any better once in power. The initiators of revolutions are rarely their inheritors; look at Egypt, where liberal secular intellectuals began a process that brought something they did not want, namely, the Muslim Brotherhood taking power and abusing it, which in turn led the country straight back into military dictatorship. The anxious ask themselves: who will take control in Syria if a foreign-aided victory over Assad is achieved?
That, say those compelled by the moral argument, is not the immediate point, which is the duty to help the thousands of men, women and children being blown up and poisoned in a conflict of terrible ferocity and cruelty. It is to their rescue, they say, that competent outside powers should ride.
The moral concern is clear and compelling. Prudential anxiety over the consequences is equally compelling. This is the very nature of a dilemma: that the arguments on both sides tug hard at us in ways that preclude an easy decision. But the present suffering of people caught in the horrors of this conflict seem to me to outweigh fears about what might come afterwards; future fears are suppositious, present agonies are real and in need of remedy. Solving the humanitarian crisis is the first urgency, and there does not seem to be a plausible alternative to military action against Assad regime forces.
For those who need geopolitical hopes to boost their moral sensibilities, there is the thought that toppling the Assad regime would weaken both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran, and could take Lebanon from under Syria’s shadow. On the other hand, of course, it might make matters worse in both directions. While we weigh up the options, let us murmur to ourselves Wilfred Owen’s 1917 lines describing the effects of a gas attack: “guttering, choking, drowning… the blood gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud of vile incurable sores on innocent tongues…” and wonder how long it can be allowed to go on in our own neighourhood in 2013.
AC Grayling is Master of the New College of the Humanities
Talk to Iran, Turkey and Assad John Kerr
As far as the intelligence is concerned, I find it pretty convincing from what I’ve read that sarin was used. It is hard to see how the rebels would have got hold of it, and so it must have come from the government side. It is difficult to believe that Assad would not have known.
The timing is odd, given that UN inspectors were in town. It was the anniversary of President Obama’s “red line” and perhaps somebody thought it a good idea to poke him in the eye. But it’s hard to apply logical analysis. Why did Saddam Hussein try so hard to persuade us that he had biological and chemical weapons, when he didn’t?
However, assuming that Assad behaves logically or that those around him do, may be a mistake. Perhaps looking for motives is wrong.
Our aim has to be to end the war. Not just for humanitarian reasons, although those are pretty powerful. There is also the risk of instability spreading, a risk that will grow if the Americans launch cruise missiles on Damascus.
This may mean getting rid of Assad. But we haven’t tested that. The west has announced that he is a pariah, and that we want all-party talks without him. This is a huge mistake. He is in a corner—why should he make any concessions? All-party talks that exclude those who control Damascus are pointless. We have to be ready to include him. There has to be a talks process. If there is no deal with Assad, then you cut him out.
What of Iran? We certainly should be talking to Tehran. The unknown quantity here is the new president, Hassan Rouhani, who has condemned the chemical attack in Damascus. He also said he is against a punitive strike by the US and its allies. Rouhani has huge influence, and life would be very different for the Assad regime if the Iranians said behind the scenes, “We’re thinking of backing off.” Rouhani is the person most likely to be able to persuade Assad to step back. He doesn’t want instability in the region either. After all, the Iranians know all about chemical weapons after their experience with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. It is crucial, therefore, that we talk to them; and by “we” here I mean the Europeans—it is very difficult for even an energetic US Secretary of State like John Kerry to jump on a plane to Tehran. For the Americans, nuclear weapons are the sine qua non and they won’t talk until the Iranians terminate their nuclear programme.
What role can Britain play in all this? The two places where William Hague should be going now are Tehran and Ankara. Though we shouldn’t expect a public statement, it would be well worth finding out if private pressure on Damascus from Tehran would make a difference. Because at the moment we are asking the regime to decapitate itself and saying, “Then we’ll talk.”
One of the things that has annoyed me about the UK government’s position is the claim not to be taking sides and simply to be saying that the use of chemical weapons is wrong. We are taking sides. But this has nothing to do with humanitarian intervention—you can’t do humanitarian intervention with cruise missiles. Tony Blair’s Chicago speech in 1999 laid out his view that the then Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic would be able to stand bombardment for much longer than we could. Once President Bill Clinton accepted, reluctantly, the view that we had to put boots on the groound and the Russians realised that this had become the western view, then the Serbs backed off and the Kosovans got back into their country. Our aim should today be to save lives and you don’t do that with cruise missiles.
As for Ankara, the Turks’ Kurdish problem becomes much worse if Syria breaks up. Once you get a Kurdish movement going, the country most affected is Turkey. And Syria has 400,000 refugees on their territory. We should ask them how they think the job of intervention should be done.
The Nato response should be the response of the country that has already lost a plane in this conflict—namely, Turkey. If we were going to do any kind of no-fly zone, the planes would have to fly over Turkey. It seems crucial to start by talking to the Turks and asking how they think we should go about it.
In the case of the Russians, we should put pride in our pocket and ask Putin what he thinks should be done. We should say to him: “If you think we are too close to al-Qaeda because of our links to the rebels, well, then we are as worried as you are about whether these guys get stronger and that’s why we haven’t been delivering on our promises of arms. This isn’t another Libya. Why don’t you, the Russians, tell us how you think the civil war can be brought to an end?”
On chemical weapons, there should be a call for reaffirming opposition to them (though this should preferably not be a motion in our name). I think Russians would vote for such a thing. I’d then call a meeting of the parties to the convention to persuade non-parties to sign up.
All of that is much less dramatic than tossing cruise missiles at people. I’m an old-fashioned diplomat—I’d do a bit of diplomacy.
John Kerr, former Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is an independent member of the House of Lords