Why Obama was right to call chemical weapons a ‘red line’

The West should pursue its initial course of punitive strikes

Share

President Obama
yesterday suspended a congressional vote to authorise the use of force against
Bashar al-Assad’s regime, after Russia put forward a proposal aimed at
monitoring and destroying Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons.

That proposal, however, looks too ambitious and unrealistic: first, because the US and Russians disagree over enforcement mechanisms; the consequences that follow if the Syrian regime fails to comply (the US and her allies want a resolution provisioning the use of force in the event of non-compliance, the Russians do not) and the operational and technical challenges associated with destroying chemical weapons in a risky and volatile conflict zone.

Western military intervention has not, therefore, been averted and is still a probable scenario; and it can still make an important contribution to the Syrian conflict, as well as beyond.

First, desperate despots around the world must be sent a message. The use of chemical weapons will not be permitted; the international community will not tolerate their use and it will indeed act in the event this horrific form of weaponry is used.

Critics point out it is the numbers killed, rather than the means through which they are killed, that should constitute the ‘red line’ line for the international community and supporters of humanitarian intervention. That, however, misses the logic, purpose and impact of chemical weapons use.

After-effects

Chemical weapon attacks in modern times can be traced to World War I. They were most used most recently in 1988 in the Iraqi Kurdistan town of Halabja. These macabre attacks not only kill quickly and with an immediate impact on the local population but they also inflict terror and have long-term consequences. They have the capacity to dramatically reduce enemy morale and fix a permanent physical and psychological scar on the local population. Further, chemical weapons inflict long-term injuries to its victims and can affect future generations in the form of birth defects and other disabilities. In Halabja, Saddam Hussein’s forces killed at least 5,000 men, women and children almost instantly. Thousands more continue to suffer today. 

In other words, chemical weapon attacks are not simply about destruction but about inflicting long-term, immeasurable and sustained pain and horror on a population. They are indiscriminate with their targets and their reach goes beyond the battlefield.

On the battlefield, they have the capacity to alter the balance of a conflict and offer a strategic advantage, especially in localised conflicts. It is questionable that the limited use of chemical weapons in Syria will change the direction of the conflict. They can, however, be effective in urbanised and local areas. Syria is engaged in a localised conflict where battles are taking place between disparate rebel forces and regime loyalists in an array of towns and cities. Yet, if chemical weapons were used in a more consistent and sustained fashion and throughout the towns and cities embroiled in the conflict, then the entire balance of power could be altered to favour the regime.

Hesitation over military action is also based on the premise that the West would be supporting and fighting alongside radical al-Qaeda elements that dominate and comprise the opposition. But that misses two important aspects: firstly, that it would be against Western interests to have a rebel victory at a point when the West has limited influence on the ground and, secondly, victory would put these radical al-Qaeda elements in a position where they dominate the Syrian state. That would be catastrophic for the security and interests of both the West and the broader international community.

Bloody nose

Instead Prime Minister Cameron, alongside President Obama, has made it clear that any military strikes will not be aimed at removing the Assad regime or afford the rebels any meaningful victory - but that strikes would be punitive in their nature and give, at most, the Assad regime a bloody nose. Hence, Western action that aims to deter further chemical weapons use will not necessarily bolster and afford rebel forces meaningful victory.

The use of punitive and symbolic military strikes does not have to mean that diplomacy should be put aside. The form of military intervention proposed by the US and UK, but from which both powers have temporarily drawn back, can realistically be combined with diplomacy. Both Cameron and Obama have stated that the only outcome to this conflict can and must be a negotiated political settlement.

At best, military strikes will induce Assad into negotiating. This, however, has to be coupled with an effort to force rebel forces to sit down at the negotiating table. Both options seem unlikely at this stage, given that the Assad regime has immense regional support as well as important support from Russia. Moreover, rebel forces themselves are divided on the issue and do not operate under one unified banner.

However, at a minimum, military strikes will show a willingness to act that goes beyond the current conflict in Syria. The West is not currently in a position to topple Assad or to devote itself entirely to the downfall of the regime through extensive use of its military capacity (for example by deploying ground troops). But it can still send a message to the Assad regime, as well as existing and future despots of the world, that it will act in the face of chemical weapons usage.

Ranj Alaaldin is a doctoral researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he focuses on Shia political mobilisation and sectarian conflict in the Middle East. He previously worked on the law of armed conflict and the use of force.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman leaving The High Court  

Lutfur Rahman has devalued the struggle for racial justice and equality, and I hate him for it

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
A daily miscellany of general election facts, figures, trivia and traditions  

General Election 2015: It's not too late to liven up this dull campaign

Danny Rogers
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions