Saturday 7 September 2013

The Case in Favour of Acting Against Syria

The UN weapons inspection team has left Syria, after completing its investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria in an attack a couple of weeks ago.  Following the horrific scenes that were splashed across our TV screens and strong intelligence corroboration, it is difficult to anticipate that the UN team will conclude that no chemicals were used.  Indeed, there has been strong intelligence and media information to suggest that this is not the first chemical attack in Syria over the past couple of years.  With reports that 1,000 were killed in the most recent attack, however, it is by far the most serious use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War so far.

Not only is the use of chemical weapons abhorrent to all sensible people, it is also outlawed by a number of international treaties and UN resolutions.  Syria's use of chemical weapons is an anathema to anybody who has any sensitivity to human suffering.  It is also an act that is objectively illegal in terms of international law.  The fact that these weapons were used by a government on its own people, is a fact that is extemely difficult to understand.  People should ordinarily be defended against terrible attacks like this by its national government, in the same way as young children should be defended by their parents.  When the parents are guilty of causing damage to the children, an outside body needs to be available to step in to protect those who are innocent and have no others to protect them.  The same is true of the situation in Syria.  This is the moment for the international community to step in, and protect the innocent men, women and children of Syria from being hurt by their own government forces.  It is also the moment for the international community to send the message that contravention of international law has consequences.

For Israelis and for Jews, the requirement for the international community to act is a much more personal issue.  The dithering of the international community in situations like this almost always evokes the parallel of the failure of the international community to act against the Nazi genocide machine.  International forces were implored to bomb the train tracks that led to the Auschwitz extermination camp, but refused to do so.  Millions of lives were lost as a result.  Jews can never forget this failure to respond.  For Jews living in Israel, it goes even further.   Failure to act against Syria could put Israel's security at direct risk.  There can be no doubt that Syria is watching to see if the world responds to this event, as a precedent for how it may behave in the future.  Syria's benefactor, Iran, is also watching with eager eyes.  Until now, Iran has been allowed to develop its nuclear weapons program with impunity.  By seeing that the international community does not respond to protect innocent people and international law when required, Syria and Iran will be led to understand that they have a free hand to do almost as they please in the future by virtue of the failure on the part of the international community to respond.  This is a message that we cannot afford to send.

It is understandable that the major world powers are war-weary, and are not seeking to open a new front after having fought harsh and costly battles in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.  Their reluctance to get involved in Syria is all the more understandable after it transpired that the Second Gulf War was instigated after publication of faulty intelligence information.  These events damaged reputations, and harmed the trust that was placed in world leaders at the time by their citizens.  Nobody amongst the current world leaders wishes to repeat these mistakes.  The British House of Commons has already voted, and rejected British military participation in Syria.  President Obama confounded even his closest advisers by deciding to seek the approval of Congress before taking action in Syria.  This approval is by no means assured, despite the strong conviction on the part of the president that action is required.  The American people, and Congress, needs to be more convinced that this will not end up being another Iraq or Afghanistan for US troops.  Somehow, world leaders need to be able to to sell the importance of intervention in order to get the support of their local constituencies.

There are a number of precedents in recent years for short, sharp operations that do not draw foreign troops into a protracted war.  Libya is one example that springs to mind.  This would surely be a good template to use in Syria.  It represents a sound solution that will mean the international community responds to unacceptable behaviour, while foreign forces are not drawn into protracted commitments in faraway countries.  The objective of such an operation will surely be to destroy stockpiles of chemical weapons still being stored in Syria, Lebanon, Iran and other countries. Such an action will make the region and the world a better and safer place.

The IDF remains on high alert in anticipation of a possible US strike on Syria.  For Israel, such a strike is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand it sends a message to Syria and Iran that the US remains ready and willing to intervene militarily in the region if rquired, and also will possibly destroy stockpiles of dangerous weapons held on Israel's borders.  On the other hand, a strike on Syria by the US will almost certainly elicit a strike on Israel by Syria.  Syria will not wish to have its honour publicly dragged through the mud by the US in the case of a strike by it on Syria.  The only realistic way for Syria to retaliate against the US is to strike its closest regional ally, Israel, in response.  It is for this reason that the IDF is on high alert, and the reason that many Israelis are opposed to a US strike on Syria.  By the US turning a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Israel will be assured a greater prospect of peace and quiet in the short-term.  In the longer-term, however, this would be a much more dangerous situation.  Syria will continue to build its stockpile of chemical weapons on Israel's border, and will continue to understand that they can use them with impunity and without necessarily being held to account.

In spite of the obvious short-term threat to Israel, it is my view that US and the international community needs to step in to respond to these actions as a matter of priority.  Syria cannot be left in any doubt about the unacceptability of using chemical weapons.  This will also send a clear message to Iran about the willingness of the international community to intervene when required.  I have every faith in the IDF, and its ability to repel any attack that Syria may launch on Israel in retaliation to a US attack on Syria.

Any action of war should be taken seriously, as it always results in people being killed.  Even if the US manages to undertake a short, sharp and concentrated attack on Syria, it will inevitably result in loss of life. This may even risk Israeli lives depending on how Syria chooses to respond.  I have no doubt, however, that this is preferable to the alternative which allows Syria to believe that it has free reign to behave as it pleases in the future.  Actions involving chemical weapons should always have consequences, and this is no exception.  Teaching Syria (and Iran) this lesson now, will ensure greater regional stability in the longer-term.