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.