Editorial: Syria’s red line should never have been drawn

One of the first rules of diplomacy is don’t issue threats that you can’t carry out

Share

The shift in United States policy towards Syria is alarming. This newspaper has warned that arming the disorganised opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime is likely only to increase the bloodshed, however strong the laudable desire to “do something” to end the suffering of the Syrian people.

The Independent hopes that Barack Obama does not seriously intend to pursue the old Cold War ploy of trying to tip the balance in a civil war that is a proxy for wider interests, and we are alarmed by David Cameron’s apparent enthusiasm for such a policy. It is possible that Mr Obama is using the threat of supplying arms to the anti-Assad forces as a way of putting pressure on the Russians to engage in meaningful peace talks. That would be better than if he seriously intends to engage in a local arms race with Vladimir Putin, but even so, it is a dangerous form of diplomacy.

This more benign reading of American policy would see Mr Obama’s “red line” as a case study in the use of rhetoric in geopolitics. He has been trapped by the evidence that his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons has been crossed, and feels that, for the sake of his credibility, he has to ratchet up the US response. However repugnant chemical and biological warfare might be, this is a line that should never have been drawn. One of the first rules of diplomacy is never to issue threats that you are not prepared to carry out, and it has been obvious from his dithering in recent weeks that Mr Obama was far from eager to follow through on his implied threat.

However, even if the announcement that the US will provide “direct military support” to the Supreme Military Council in Syria is reluctant and tactical, it carries all the dangers of escalation that history should have taught us to avoid. If the US is to supply arms to the rebels and to monitor by whom they are used, it will have to supply trainers or “advisers”; it will then be under pressure to impose a no-fly zone to protect those people. If it imposes a no-fly zone, then the aircraft enforcing it are at risk of being brought down in Syria, and then the US military will feel bound to deploy special forces to try to rescue its personnel.

For those reasons, we are worried that the British and French governments have sabotaged the European Union embargo on arms to Syria. In advance of the US announcement this week, David Cameron acted as advocate of the policy of arming the rebels, even while he said – in another echo of Tony Blair’s words in the long run-up to the invasion of Iraq – that “no decision has been made” about British policy.

We hope that we are alarmed rather than alarmist. We understand the reasons for wanting to put an end to Mr Assad’s brutality. We recognise that not all of the armed opposition to Mr Assad comes from al-Qa’ida affiliates. But we realise, too, that the conflict is already a sectarian civil war that threatens to foment a wider Sunni vs Shia conflict throughout the region. The balance of probability is that further outside intervention (in addition to that from Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia) would make matters even worse, rather than better. That is the lesson of interventions in Iraq and Libya. In Libya, the case for Nato intervention was stronger than it is now in Syria, and yet that must be judged more a failure than a success to date.

The best that can be said of Mr Cameron is that he is stepping up the diplomatic effort, meeting Mr Putin in Downing Street tomorrow in advance of next week’s G8 in Northern Ireland. Given how much of these international summits are stage-managed in advance, this weekend may be the last chance for the US, the UK and France to pull back from the point of unstoppable escalation in a war that is already spreading beyond Syria’s borders.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

An unelectable extremist who hijacked their party has already served as prime minister – her name was Margaret Thatcher

Jacques Peretti
 

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent