Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Syria - A Cautionary Message from Gwynne Dyer
After that, however, we run out of facts. The rebels claim that the Baathist regime was responsible, while the Syrian government says that the rebels did it themselves in the hope of triggering foreign military intervention.
Sending United Nations inspectors will not settle that argument: if nerve gas was actually used, it must have come from government stocks, but that doesn’t mean that the regime did it.
If you apply the old test of “who benefits?”, the rebels, who are currently losing ground, have a strong incentive to get the Assad regime blamed for using illegal weapons. If that gets the United States and other Western powers to impose a no-fly zone, or bomb the regime’s military bases, it helps the rebel cause. So maybe they acted to provide the necessary “evidence”: some of them are certainly ruthless enough.
It’s easier to imagine the regime using chemical weapons: it’s just as ruthless, and it actually owns them. But it is manifestly not to its advantage to do so.
President Bashar al-Assad’s troops are winning the war without them, and the last thing he needs is foreign military intervention. Using chemical weapons could lead to just such an outcome, and it would be exceptionally stupid for the regime to do so.
On the other hand, armies and regimes have done exceptionally stupid things in the past, particularly when they are isolated and under great pressure. The emerging consensus among Western governments, at any rate, is that Assad was responsible. So what to do about it?
U.S. military intervention is unlikely to lead to the outcome American foreign policy really desires: the preservation of Syria’s existing secular state, with a change of leadership at the top.
If Assad is overthrown, he’ll probably pull the whole edifice down with him. If the rebels win, it’s almost certainly the Islamist radicals who will take over. So if a military intervention is practically bound to end in tears, then why not just skip it?
Because chemical weapons are classed as “weapons of mass destruction”, and there is an international treaty banning their use. If you let Assad get away with this, goes the argument, he will have breached an important international taboo on the use of WMD. Well, not really.
Biological weapons (“germ warfare”) are truly horrifying weapons of mass destruction, banned by treaty, and nobody has ever used them. Nuclear weapons can kill by the billions; they have never been banned, but they haven’t been used in war for 68 years now. Poison gas, however, is not really a weapon of mass destruction at all.
Napalm, fuel-air explosives, and cluster bombs are just as nasty as poison gas, and perfectly legal. The historic ban on poison gas is a valuable deterrent, but it has survived some previous breaches, and preventing this one is not worth a war. Especially if it is, from the point of view of the potential interveners, an unwinnable war.
I think Dyer is probably right. For the U.S., Britain and France, this has become a matter of self-image. We're supposed to be the policemen of the world, the guys who step up to the plate when bad stuff happens. We would look like wimps if we didn't bomb somebody and, besides, we don't like Assad much anyway and we're not sure who to bomb or not bomb on the rebel side. So, if bombs it must be to maintain our machismo, Assad it must be.