Even the better-intentioned often seem to be in the “something must be done” school of politics, sending a message to domestic constituencies. Barack Obama has put himself in that camp, committing himself to “punish” Bashar al-Assad, with no clear outcome to the action except defiance of the United Nations and the rule of the international law invoked against Damascus, as well as risking the sort of devastation caused by the Iraq war and its aftermath.
Obama has implicitly joined the neo-conservative ideologues who want “action” and punitive bombing because they want to send a “signal” to Iran and a message of support to Israel.
There have been comparisons with Kosovo, but the key intervention there was not the bombing campaign, which was conducted from high altitude to allow Bill Clinton to show that he was “doing something” while not risking the domestic fallout of shot-down American pilots. It was the threat of ground forces moving in caused Slobodan Milosevic to run up the white flag.
There are, of course, international conventions against chemical weapons, but killing so many innocent people, whether with cluster munitions, as still issued to the United States military, phosphorus (as used in Gaza), or napalm, is equally reprehensible and such actions are surely covered by the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. And, as Tony Blair and George W Bush graphically demonstrated, the principle of humanitarian intervention is susceptible to partisan interpretation, which is why it has to be applied so cautiously.
The Syrian people are victims, not only of Assad’s ruthless reluctance to cede power, but also of disastrous diplomatic decisions by the West. Russia’s stance is not excusable but understandable in the context of constant American snubs. But Russian support for Assad is as indefensible as unqualified American support for Israel, which poisons every diplomatic initiative in the region. The US now disdains the UN’s Uniting For Peace procedure under which the Korean War was fought, because the Palestinians have used it to bypass the automatic American veto in support of Israel.
The Israel connection also stops Washington dealing rationally with Teheran. As victims of (Western-backed) chemical attacks, even the Iranians might be open to discussion. The Israeli connection should give pause to any American involvement in military intervention. The US might have the military resources, but its record shows that it is not ideologically or politically equipped to meddle directly in Arab and Muslim affairs.
It is not enough to shout “No to intervention”. Nor is it enough to bleat about diplomacy – only a credible military threat might bring Assad to reasonable negotiations. A regime implicated in chemical warfare might amount to a diplomatic weapon for use by any UN members genuinely concerned. Members of the Security Council should and tell both Moscow and Washington that, Israeli concerns notwithstanding, they will take the issue to the General Assembly under the Uniting for Peace procedure if Russia uses its veto.
Since Vladimir Putin’s stance is as much about face as love for Assad, the prospect of defeat in the court of world opinion might make him more amenable to joint action.
The British Parliament’s declaration of independence, backed by other countries, could give Obama the cover he needs to face off the neo-cons and the Israel lobby over ill-considered intervention and yet win some agreement from traditionally isolationist Americans that some considered investment in Syria is necessary.