On Thursday, Sameer Rahim argued that there is a difference between stepping in to start a war and stepping in to end oneby Sameer Rahim / April 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
The latest chemical attack on Douma by Bashar al-Assad’s regime has aroused strong emotions. Though the Syrian dictator has attacked his own people with impunity since 2011, there is something especially horrifying about these outlawed weapons. I shall never forget a Syrian woman telling me about her two sons who were killed in the 2013 Sarin attack in Ghouta. At the time, Ghouta seemed to have breached Barack Obama’s famous red line but in the end, as we know, there was no retaliation. (Thanks, Ed Miliband.) The 2014 OPCW deal between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian equivalent Sergei Lavrov was supposed to disarm the regime of its chemical weapons. It didn’t work. Since then Human Rights Watch has estimated that Assad—aided and protected by Russia—has carried out 50 chemical attacks using both sarin and chlorine.
Donald Trump’s contradictory tweets—in 24 hours we’ve gone from “Get ready Russia” to “Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”—hardly inspire confidence that he has a thought-through plan to stop further chemical attacks. This time last year he bombed an empty airfield but didn’t follow up—it was simply an emotional spasm. Only a couple of weeks ago, he was saying that he wanted nothing more to do with Syria.
But those who would rather do nothing, or “tragic realists” as Obama grandly thought of himself, are wrong. There is the chance of intelligent intervention and the grown-up leaders in this situation, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron, should be guiding Trump towards that outcome.
What would intelligent intervention look like? Each time Assad violates the chemical weapons ban there should be proportionate retaliation: a man of force will only understand force. This may well mean hitting supply lines, his airforce or command and control centres. Hillary Clinton had plans for a no-fly zone similar to the one her husband set up in 1990s in Iraq, which allowed the Kurds to develop their own nascent state. That requires diplomatic skills that Trump and the US sorely lack right now, and is militarily more difficult than it sounds: such zones require enforcement, and that means bombing. But it should remain an option.
Of course that would mean facing down Vladimir Putin, the perpetrator of his own chemical attack on…