The red-line of chemical weapons and Syria – 20 March 2013

Softly confirmed reports are of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government in a small town in the Allepo region. As the western powers sought to confirm the contested accounts of these developments talk of ‘red-lines’ and ‘responsibility to intervene’ emerged.

Some brief thoughts, in no particular order:

How we know what we know: given the debates around the intelligence on Iraq (see the Panorama programme on Monday night) as well as the reports that will and have come out of Butler and Chilcot, the burden of proof that ‘the west’ will need to have will need to be strong. Another campaign under false-flags will play very badly, and exactly where is the money and capability to prosecute a difficult war?

Real threats: one of the real threats from chemical weapons in this operational environment is the unsecured use. Secured use at least has a clearer set of influence metrices that could be used to mitigate or prevent its use – in an unsecured use, these influences are diffuse, obscured, and fluid – it makes them more unpredictable. It also makes them more portable – and therefore uncontained. That puts them into the global threat orbit.

Killing norms: an estimated 60,000 people have already lost their lives in Syria in the contest over who can rule the space. Very few of these deaths are likely to have been ‘nice’ and it might just be me, but I struggle to see the radical difference or escalatory effect of deaths by unconventional ordnance as opposed to conventional ordnance. If we are going to intervene because of the use of chemical weapons, we should have been intervening before: people were still dying unpleasantly over a political struggle. No-one is going to the pearly gates more pissed off that they died one way or another. It also sets a precedent – given that in the 80s and early 90s the international community were unkeen to intervene in Middle Eastern chemical attacks in Iran/Iraq/Kurdistan.

The means to an end: is to secure Russian influence in the Middle East. Without this, the removal of Assad is all but impossible. If the Russian government sees that it is no worse off, or even better off with a replacement, we could reasonably assume that their position would move. To try and write Russia out of the Middle East will be to create a Syrian conflict that cannot be contained.

The safety of friends first / fracture lines: looking at a conflict map of the Middle East makes it quite clear that the Israeli Prime Minister is quite correct when he talks of their being massive threats in the region. Increasingly he has them stacking up on his borders. The old mantra of ‘solve the Israeli-Palestinian question and you’ve solved peace in the Middle East’ is now a historical relic. There are far bigger problems in the Middle East, they’re all across religious/ethnic identity lines and they are not contained by the Westphalian niceties of boundary lines. Therefore, a plan for the security of the Middle East has to include our own allied bulwark of democracy – Israel – as the protected red-line. And for the rest of the region (which now in terms of joined up insurgencies – be they dormant, a little active or fully-fledged spreads all the way across to west Africa) greater attention needs to fall upon demilitarisation and trade-aid. The disconnect of insurgent from his base of support lies in satisfaction and economic growth – no-one goes to war on a full stomach as the adapted phrase goes. Poverty, strong and historically mal-formed rhetorics, and an abundance of conventional weaponry is making a very significant part of the globe ungovernable. No wonder some folk argue for a wider Atlantic community, a pivot towards Latin America.

If you break it, you own it: The new first rule of interventions is that if you break the country, you own it. And walking away (a’la Iraq and Afghanistan) is possible, but doesn’t really help anyone. An intervention in Syria (which is predominantly broken in governance terms) would still trigger the maxim, I think. Whilst the historical resonance is poor or problematic, a Syria-under-mandate might be the smartest way to proceed – think Bosnia under Paddy Ashdown, but with more people involved. Perhaps the role the UN should be playing is in being able to step in as a collective civil service/government with a core remit to ensure that the four governance strands are improved and that the outcome should always be a return to local rule when stability is in place: it would be the best way of dispersing financial and operational risk and responsibility.

Be wary of those who want immediate interventions, be wary of those who say trust the intelligence, and have no sustainable and viable plans for stability – these are 30year plans, not 5years twitchy and out.  In this war, the competition is potentially our best friend….


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