We wring our hands as poison spreads
Published in The Mail on Sunday (August 25th, 2013)
More than 100,000 Syrians lie dead. One-fifth of a 22 million population has been displaced. Yet even a few months ago there were still supposed experts who claimed Bashar Assad, the London-trained eye doctor turned dictator, was a decent chap trapped by cruel circumstance.
These deluded fools must surely have been silenced after the hideous deaths of perhaps 1,700 people in apparent chemical attacks last week. If confirmed, it will be the worst such incident since Saddam Hussein’s attacks on the Kurds 25 years ago.
When there is slaughter on the Syrian scale it seems almost academic whether people are killed by bullets or poison. But last year Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons was a ‘red line’ that would ‘change my calculus’. He was right: if the world is to have any rules of war or accept any limits to atrocities, there has to be a response to Assad’s latest outrage.
The question, of course, is what? This is already a proxy war, with fighters from 25 countries. I have spoken to refugees burned out of their homes by Iranian forces who, like the Russians, side with Assad. Meanwhile money and munitions have poured into the rebels from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – with a wink and a nod from the White House.
Now the contagion seems to be spreading. Lebanon suffered two more huge bomb attacks yesterday. Jordan is struggling to cope with a massive influx of Syrian refugees while Iraq is again drowning in blood. It is no longer fanciful to see even Egypt suffering meltdown,
Amid all this, the UN looks even more hopeless than ever, given the shameful Russian and Chinese lock on any Security Council action and a second-rate Secretary-General. Yet if nothing is done, what message does this send to other rogue states? And as the world wrings its hands, the jihadists and extremists grow stronger inside Syria.
For months, Britain and France have wanted a bolder stance, encouraged by their action in Libya that ousted another despot (although this aided the collapse of its neighbour Mali).
David Cameron, meanwhile, is haunted by another conflict: Bosnia. This showed how doing nothing can turn out to be as fateful a choice as taking action. Serbian ethnic cleansing rampaged for three years while a Conservative Government led Western opposition to intervention. Then came the 1995 massacre of 8,000 people in Srebrenica, finally forcing Nato into action.
There are no easy answers to the Syrian dilemma. The easiest move politically is to arm the rebels, although their problem is not a shortage of weapons, and there is no point creating no-fly zones if we cannot defend them against well-armed forces backed by Russia.
Ultimately, we must ponder two profound questions. First, are we prepared to become embroiled in a vicious war in the Middle East? And second, do we really understand the impact of our actions if we do get involved? The answers could define this decade.