Editorial: There must be no rush to join Syria's war

It must be recognised that there are big differences between an isolated, unauthorised, use of sarin and a decision by the Assad regime

Share

Recent days have provided persuasive evidence that chemical weapons are being used in Syria. The most graphic report – video footage from Aleppo, purportedly showing victims of nerve gas – combines with confirmation that samples taken from Syria and sent to the UK defence laboratory at Porton Down have tested positive for small quantities of sarin. A widespread conclusion is that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is resorting to the use of such weapons against its own people. 

Already the battle-lines are being drawn, and not just in Syria. Those who have argued, if not for direct Western intervention, then for the supply of weapons to the rebels – a group for whom US Senator John McCain is cheerleader – insist that the reports about sarin mean that Mr Assad has crossed a “red line”. President Obama, who is on record for the past year as saying that the use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line”, has been more cautious, as was David Cameron yesterday. Both stressed the limited quantities of the gas in the Aleppo incident and the need for more information. They are right.

It could be argued that in designating the use of chemical weapons a “red line” at all, Mr Obama was giving a hostage to fortune – to the point, perhaps, where rebel groups might be encouraged to find, or even manufacture, such evidence. It has also to be said, however, that Mr Obama has always been cautious about what action, if any, would follow a transgression. On no occasion has he specifically mentioned US or Western military intervention, although this is how his words were often interpreted. One lesson, perhaps, is that setting red lines can be almost as problematic as crossing them.

Another lesson, however, has been absorbed by Western leaders – almost too well, Mr Cameron suggested yesterday. Iraq taught the risks of acting on limited, or actually erroneous, intelligence. It is known that Syria has stockpiles of chemical weapons. What is not known, though, is whether the reported sarin attack in Aleppo was ordered, or authorised, by the Assad regime; whether it might have been initiated by a rogue commander in the field; or whether, perhaps, it is evidence of something else at least as alarming: that the regime is losing control of its weapons stocks. The alarm would be all the greater if recent reports of a rebel faction making common cause with al-Qa’ida were shown to be true.

It must be recognised, however, that there are big differences between an isolated, and unauthorised, use of sarin, a decision by the Assad regime to use chemical weapons in a desperate attempt to secure its survival, and a weapons free-for-all in a country that lies in the middle of one of the most volatile parts of the world. It should also be acknowledged that each would require a different response. To argue that a chemical attack, of whatever sort, should automatically trigger outside intervention – in the form of arms supplies to the rebels or boots on the ground – is dangerously simplistic.

What is happening in Syria is a civil war, far more complex in its nature and implications than the uprising in Libya. Any outside intervention could make matters even worse than they are, especially given that Western efforts to bring some sort of unity and sense of common purpose to the rebel groups – beyond regime-change – have so far failed. The British and French action in Libya, launched according to the UN principle of the responsibility to protect, was confined to the use of air power and special forces, yet still produced unintended consequences. Latest reports from Syria attest to the viciousness of this conflict. They do not make the case for risking even more lives.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Developer (TSQL, SSRS, SSAS) Fund Manager - London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer (TSQL, S...

Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, Angular.JS)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, An...

Front-End UI/UX Developer (HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, Ang

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End UI/U...

C#.NET Server Side Developer (C#, XML, WCF, Unit Testing,SQL)

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C#.NET ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letters: The West flounders in the Middle East morass

Independent Voices
David Tennant as Hamlet  

To vote no or not to vote no, that is the question... Although do celebrities really have the answer?

David Lister
All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition