Sometimes war is the honourable thing to do. It's time to act in Syria
Published 27/08/2013 | 05:00
There is a ghastly feeling of deja vu about the current dilemma of whether the use of chemical weapons on the civilian population in Syria justifies military intervention by Western powers. Obama's "red line" may indeed have been crossed, yet there is a clear reluctance on the part of the United States or any Western power to become embroiled in another military adventure in this highly volatile region.
But like it or not, this is a critical moment in the 29-month-old Syrian civil war. Will it result in international intervention mandated by the United Nations? Given alliances there, it is more likely to be a NATO-led intervention led by the US, France and the UK.
If involvement by the Assad regime in this chemical weapon attack on civilians is verified by the belatedly authorised UN weapons inspection this week, regional priorities and strategic alliances with Russia and China will not be disturbed. This crisis is not only a civil conflict within Syria's borders; it is a proxy war with implications for the entire region and power blocs. All the more reason, therefore, for universal human rights norms to be upheld and for the rules of war to be adhered to.
As usual, the EU is rudderless and weak. The sight of EU foreign ministers mooching before the cameras in Brussels with anxious expressions and meaningless statements is par for the course in these humanitarian crises. The truth is that there is no EU common approach to responding to gross human rights abuses.
For some months now, Syria and its appalling scale of death and destruction have been out of mind and out of the media headlights. Egypt was in focus. Yet the international agencies had been reporting unprecedented movements of refugees from Syria over the past few weeks, an indication if one was needed that conditions were so dreadful as to propel hundreds of thousands of Syrians to flee in terror across the nearest border.
France and the UK have made the most bellicose and principled statements of intent, but the rhetoric can barely conceal the reluctance to launch another military engagement with an uncertain outcome. Experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has in the round been thankless, as it turned out, with continuing instability and conflict in both countries. There is no sign of any secular stable states emerging from the ruins of tribal and sectarian divisions.
For the US, a clear finding that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons could be an inconvenient truth. President Obama may be compelled by his own earlier rhetoric and by the demands of moral authority and international norms to take some military action which falls short of "boots on the ground". If the international community allows such use of chemical weapons against civilian populations to go unpunished, all moral authority will be lost. Such inaction would embolden other despotic states and threaten the security of the region. As Israeli president Shimon Peres has said: "The moral call is superior to any strategic considerations."
The fact that the numbers of child refugees passed the one million figure, as well as two million children being internally displaced, is ratcheting up the humanitarian scale of this crisis. More than 100,000 people have died in this conflict, many of them children. Such a scale of civilian deaths and targeting of children is itself a war crime that demands a response.
William Hague, David Cameron and Barack Obama are principled leaders who honour universal human rights norms and standards, regardless of popular opinion. The US representative at the UN, Samantha Power, is renowned as a "humanitarian hawk", believing strongly that genocide and abuses of international human rights cannot be set aside and ignored as happened in Kosovo and Rwanda. Politicised by her experience in Kosovo when the US delayed too long to intervene, she is likely to favour intervention and has the ear of the president.
MR Obama, although more of a pragmatist, will not want his legacy to include a lapse of moral authority because of inaction to stop crimes against humanity under his watch. Previous US Democrat administrations are stained with the blood of genocide in Rwanda when they failed to act, a fact cited by Bill Clinton as the greatest regret of his career. Sometimes war, which is always a failure of politics and diplomacy, is the honourable thing to do in the face of unconscionable tyranny.
The moral compass in this case clearly points towards intervention by Western powers. For years, Syria has been a rogue state, part of the "axis of evil". Such a confrontation by Western powers to vindicate civilised values was inevitable. Although fraught with danger and unknowable outcomes, it is the right thing to do.