On Thursday this week, some nasty details came out of Syria – it looks likely that chemical weapons have been used on the civilian population. Images of victims allegedly attacked earlier in the month with sarin nerve gas show frothing at the mouth, and at least four people have died.
Why should you care, aside from the humanitarian side of things? Because this is a war crime and the “red line” for possible US/UK military intervention. Two of the victims were children as young as 18 and 4 months.
A letter sent to the US congress from the White House details some of the evidence and states quite plainly: “we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime”. Naturally, the Syrian government denies it, claiming: “This has been done by organisations, including al-Qaida, which threatened to use chemical weapons against Syria. They have carried out their threat near Aleppo. There were victims. The Syrian army does not have chemical weapons.”
Right…well here’s the video footage. Let me say right up front that this is unverified and could well be a hoax. But thankfully, the US intelligence community seems to have learned their lesson on Iraq:
“Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experiences, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient – only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making.”
That’s code for: we don’t really know for sure, but we strongly suspect. I, for one, hope that they don’t make the same mistakes as before. I doubt they will. Britain has been similarly cautious. David Cameron has made his own announcements. He said British boots on Syrian ground is unlikely, but told BBC Breakfast:
“I think what President Obama said was absolutely right – that this should form for the international community a red line for us to do more. I have always been keen for us to do more. We are working with the opposition, we want our allies and partners to do more with us to shape that opposition to make sure we are supporting people with good motives who want a good outcome, to put pressure on that regime so we can bring it to an end.”
The two-year war in Syria between rebels and the Assad regime has killed over 70,000 people, according to activist groups. Neither side is winning. A great summary (with pictures if you like that sort of thing) has been put together by the BBC to get you caught up on the history.
So what could be done about it?
Some countries have been arming the rebels, but others (including the US) are petrified that the sophisticated weaponry needed to take down President Assad and his troops would later be turned against them. As they were in Iraq, for example. Myriad terrorist groups are operating in Syria, often as the most effective fighters due to their training, fervour and discipline.
Another option would be to impose a “no-fly zone” (patrol the skies with jets and blow up anything that takes off and doesn’t have feathers) as was done with great success in Libya. But that requires a united opposition, which the Syrian rebels are not, would cost a lot and could drag on years with little effect.
We could fire a cruise missile and blow Assad into pieces. But this wouldn’t be very effective either, because it would leave the country in chaos and possibly under the control of anti-western terrorist groups. It is also going a bit beyond what western politicians have the stomach to do – removing the leader of a state by assassination sets a rather disturbing precedent.
Finally, we could send in the army. But one look at Afghanistan, which was invaded in 2001 and still has troops on the ground, and suddenly it seems less like a good plan, particularly in the middle of economic calamity and military spending cuts.
Bottom line: this one is sticky and unpleasant. It’s unlikely to turn into a war, but don’t rule it out.