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


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
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own