Our failure to act in Syria is making the world a more dangerous place

by Peter Watt

I remember in the aftermath of the second Iraq war engaging in a discussion with some people opposed to the war.  It was a very hot topic and many people had very strongly held views.  I was then and still am a supporter of the decision to invade Iraq and to remove Saddam Hussein; the people I was debating were not.  But it was in fact a friendly discussion and there was mutual respect despite fundamental disagreement.  I certainly understood their objections and could see their point.

But there was one thing that I couldn’t understand.  I asked whether they could see any circumstances in which there was evidence that a “rogue” country had weapons of mass destruction that we should act forcibly to disarm them.  They said “no”.  I pushed; what if Iran or North Korea for instance developed a nuclear weapon?  Again they said ‘no’.  In fact they said that we had no right to stop them having a nuclear weapon as we and the U.S. had them.  If we or the United States had them (so their argument went) then it was only fair that Iran or North Korea could have them as well if they wanted them.

Now personally I think that this is palpable nonsense.   We and the U.S. are democracies, respect human rights, basic freedoms and free-speech.  To be frank we have every right to both have nuclear weapons ourselves and to demand that others do not.  Something incidentally that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its 190 signatories agree with.

Does that means that I think that our liberal, democratic way of life is better than the totalitarian or unstable alternatives then yes I bloody well do!  And I think that these ideals are worth defending.  And so I just couldn’t see how it was possible to argue that there weren’t circumstances that force may have to be used to ensure that some states did not become owners of the ability to kill millions.

And I think the same is true when it comes to chemical weapons.  Should rogue states be allowed to possess them and threaten their own populations or those of their neighbours?  Again “no.”  And in the last resort we should be prepared to use force if necessary to ensure that this does not happen.  To do otherwise would be irresponsible in the extreme.

Which brings us to Syria.

History will judge us harshly for the way that we have allowed the people of Syria to suffer and to be massacred by the Assad regime.  It will shame us all and we will have to explain to our children how we have stood by and let 70,000 people die so far.  It is not just the immediate and on-going killing.  Who knows what the long term consequences will be for the region and indeed the world of a generation of Syrians so systematically brutalised?

But there is another consequence unfolding that could have equally dire consequences.  And that is the effective impotence of the rest-of-the-world to respond to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad, on his own people.

The problem is that for months the world, and most importantly other despots, have looked on as Assad has shot, bombed and shelled fellow Syrians.

Certainly harsh words have been spoken and stern faces have been posed at condemnatory conferences.  But the truth is that word has gone out that the rest-of-the-world may speak tough but will do little more.  Succour has been given to other dictators desperate to stay in power.  And now we have, in all likelihood, the use of sarin gas by Assad as he comes under increasing pressure from the rebels.

President Obama said that using chemical weapons is a red line and would be a “game-changer.”  It was a threat – the message to Assad was if you use chemical weapons then we will act.  That is the point of a red line, it is unequivocal and not up for negotiation.

But there are two problems with this.  Firstly the implicit inference is that using shells, tanks and fighter planes to terrorise your population will be tolerated.  And secondly, that if indeed chemical weapons have been used then there had better be action or the clear message is that talking tough is the only response to be expected if you use a weapon of mass destruction.

Already there is concern that the red line is a little fuzzy.  A White House spokesperson said this week:

“If we reach a definitive determination that this red line has been crossed based on credible corroborated information, what we will be doing is consulting closely with our friends and allies and the international community more broadly, and the Syrian opposition, to determine what the best course of action is,”

I bet that Assad is quaking in his boots at that!  All he has to do is hamper any enquiries into whether he has used chemical weapons and it will be tricky to get credible corroborated evidence.

And anyway, what is the chance that Russia and China will play ball with President Obama’s red line?   Meanwhile the chance that a future attack by terrorists will contain chemicals rather than nails increases.

So the world is watching.  And in particular those dictators who may need to suppress their populations.  Use conventional weapons and you will be on the right side of the red line.  Use chemical agents and we will move the red line.

I am sure that we all feel safer as a result.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party

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14 Responses to “Our failure to act in Syria is making the world a more dangerous place”

  1. swatantra says:

    On this issue of interference in another State’s affairs, I have to disagree with Peter. He is absolutely wrong.The evidence is unclear about the use of chemical weapons and which sid is using them. Its a civil War ou there in Syria and AlQueda and terrorists se it as an opportunity to step in. The rebellion has created 1m refugees flooding across the borders into the Arab neighbours creating even more civil unrest. Maybe Peter wishes to invite thenm to seek asylum here? 2 years ago Syria was a reasonably stable secular State. Nowit is an abslute hellhole because of the agitation and rebellion egged on by a naieve West. The same could be said of Iraq 10 years ago a secular State and relative freedom of movement by Arab standards. All destroyed by an invasion which created more problems than it solved. And because of that invasion 1m killed or displaced.
    Lets leave it to the Syrians to solve their own problems, bearing in mind that the whole of the ME is in a state of turmoil principally because of the prescence of just one factor:Israel. Solve that problem and I guarantee we will get lasting peace in that Region. In the meantime, leave it to the Syrians, leave it to the Iranians. And if they want a nuclear bomb, them let them have one.
    We could set an example by unilateral disamarment saying clearly that nuclear arms won’t solve anything, and we have better ways of spending our money.

  2. Ex-labour says:


    I think you’ve had a bit of a “heads gone” moment on this. I write from the perspective that I have lived and worked in the Middle East until only a few years ago, so I’m well aware of the politics in that region.

    Swatantra is right in that the use of chemical weapons is yet to be validated and if they were used who used them is an even bigger question. The use of “false flag” operations is common place in virtually every war or conflict we have seen globally this century.

    The UK is no longer the worlds policeman and has neither the resources or appetite to get involved yet another distant conflict. You argue we have some moral imperative to do so but forget that western agitation has created this conflict to some degree. Our governments naively believe that democracy will emerge if the people are given more freedoms, when in reality radical Islam is waiting in the wings and freedom and democracy will be curtailed further, even in relatively secular countries such as Syria.

    Politics in the Middle East is driven by culture which is itself driven by religion and in some states tribal values. It is noticeable that Syrias neighbours and the wider Arab region are staying out of the conflict and it is wise for us to do the same. Despite the death and destruction we cannot afford to be dragged into another long term gorilla war with Al Queda.

  3. bob says:

    swatantra: Your comments are interesting, why have the big players in that part of the world such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar not offered a stabilising force to help a ‘peace’ process under UN mandate.

    You also display some antipathy towards Israel and it’s existence. Do you think that by the destruction of State of Israel that either peace would descend on the region or that the people of Israel would stand idlely by and see their state destroyed. I suggest that you look at recent history and even watch the documentary Death Camp Treblinka and read some of the history of the Holocaust, to understand their attitude to survival. Iraq Egypt, Algeria and even the states of the FRY had strong dictators with a foot on the neck of their populations which stopped inter religious and/or tribal/ethnic factions killing each other.

    Peter; the second Iraq war was started on a lie between Bush and Blair, added and abetted by Campbell and a perversion of civil service ethics in presenting evidence of WMB. How did Dr David Kelly die, we still don’t have an answer.

    The Arab lands have a problem in that lines were drawn on maps years ago but did not take into account that the inhabitants then had a nomadic culture.

  4. Matthew Blott says:

    “I was then and still am a supporter of the decision to invade Iraq and to remove Saddam Hussein”.

    You lost me as soon as you said this.

  5. bob says:

    Are the editors of this blog uncomfortable with my previous comments, as it is in serious conflict with a lot of pre conceived attitudes and discrimination by various contributors to this site about the state of Israel and their reason, as i see it, for their actions since 1948. The comments of mine do not support the concept of Zionism but the right of the state of Israel to exist in peace and to cohabit with it’s neighbours and not to be fearful for its existence.

  6. SadButMadLad says:

    I thought the left has just praised Ken Livingstone for saying that the reason why America (and by implication and association) is a more dangerous place is because the US got involved in Iraq. Similarly getting involved in Syria will give the Arabs there an excuse to attack us for our imperialistic attitudes to controlling them and telling them how to live their lives.

  7. swatantra says:

    bob raises an important issue : what do we do with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States? Contrary to the general view, Saudi Arabia is one of the problems, with its orthodox conservativism and fundamentalist islam; the root of our current problems wih islamists/terrorists rises in Saudi Arabia’s itself, and its refusal to modernise and its treatment of women and minorities. With friends like that, who needs enemies. What is needed is a revolution in these monarchies and a liberal regime brought in. The Arab Spring needs to spread to Saudi and the Gulf States and topple these absolute regimes. We need to loosen our ties with them. Saudi in fact is the real enemy to reform change and modernisation.
    Incidently, its important to remember that the Holocaust took the lives of not just the 6m Jews but 6m non Jews as well.o remember the non Jews as well.
    I’m not in favour of 2 State Solution. The land of Israel belongs to both Jews and Palestinians as well. So a One State Solution is the better option.

  8. Henrik says:

    Peter, huge kudos for seeing a moral dimension in international relations. Admirable on so many levels and, once humanity’s had another few thousand years to adjust to the change from being hunter-gatherers, it’ll be time to put the moral dimension fair and square at the head of our strategic calculation.

    I rather think the time for that isn’t now. Our limited strategic interest in Syria is just that – very limited. They’re fighting a civil war (and let’s not get too Manichean about this, in real life there are rarely goodies and baddies); while I grant you that the security forces in Syria aren’t paragons of restraint and courtesy, the insurgents aren’t too pretty a crowd, either. Our primary interest in that neck of the woods is stability and predictability. If Assad wins, the outcome is likely to be a weakened Syria which is too focused on rebuilding to make trouble; if the insurgents win, who’s to say? The best case would be a sort of super-Iraq in security terms, with internecine fighting, widespread use of terrorist techniques to assert one view over another and a fundamental lack of stability.

    Even if, contrary to good sense and rationality, the West (by which one means the US, UK and perhaps France) were to take a decision to intervene, what shape would you see this taking? Air attacks? On whom, for which purpose and with what strategic aim in mind? Active intervention on the ground? Really? Covert support, arms deliveries, that kind of thing? Probably better done by regional players already involved in the conflict who have cultural, social and religious insights we lack.

    On the specific issue of chemical weapons, I note that the President was very careful to define his red line as the “systematic use” of chemical weapons. There have doubtless been incidences of chemical weapons use in the conflict; it’s a clear part of Syrian military doctrine and Assad himself is on record as seeing chemical weapons as an available club in his golfbag, just as air power, artillery, the use of informal and unorganised militias for pogroms and razzias and the deployment of AFVs against lightly armed insurgents are. I wonder how precisely one would undertake the task of depriving the Syrian regime of its chemical weapons; I don’t think they’d cooperate freely with, say, the UN – and certainly not while fighting what the government side sees as an existential conflict.

  9. andy says:

    And back who exactly in Syria? The opposition is mostly anti-western.

    I have mates who are ‘contract security’ in Libya. Did you know most of the country is now in the hands of islamists? That nothing moves anywhere in Tripoli unless it pays a cash tithe to get through the checkpoints? That Benghazi is now largely under the control of al-Quaeda? The press in the west doesn’t really report much about Libya these days with the exception of Robert Fisk and even he understates it.

    Nothing short of putting western troops on the ground will stop what is happening in Libya. Likewise nothing short of putting western troops on the ground in Syria will stop that going the same way. How many of you supprt direct western intervention? After the fiascos of Iraq & Afghanistan not many I will bet.

  10. John P Reid says:

    I’m afraid Peter that i can’t find any sense in your post,

  11. Henrik says:

    @andy: I think your mates might have a slightly selective view of Tripoli. I’ve just spent a week there and, with the exception of a rag tag bunch of Tier 2 militia from Misrata whinging about their cash being late and imposing a very unimpressive ‘blockade’ of a couple of ministries (waving rusty AKs, many of them clearly unserviceable), the city is quiet and the police firmly in control. I saw no cash checkpoints.

    Granted, there was a successful attack on the French Embassy during my stay but the security forces responded quickly and appropriately and arrests have been made.

  12. bob says:

    swatantra: i have read your comments with interest, indeed Saudi Arabia is the home to fundamentalist Whaibbism, repression of women and an absolute monarchy, but whilst the west is reliant on Saudi oil and Qatari gas we cannot afford to alienate them. They are also the opponents of Iran and their interpretation of Islam. The other Gulf states at the eastern end of the Arabian gulf are very liberal compared to Saudi Arabia, even celebrating Christian festivals and advertising such things. i do know of at least one C atholic church in Dubai and there now maybe others due to the large expat community.

    Until the UK gets off its backside and decides its energy policy for the future in using nuclear and shale gas we have no option but to support Saudi and the Gulf states or do we as the rest of Europe is doing and buy increasing amounts of gas from Russia. We all know what happened when the Georgians annoyed Putin, he turned the gas off !!

    The old saying applies ‘your enemies enemy must be your ‘friend’.

    Going onto the Holocaust about 10 to 12 million in total may have been murdered from 1933 onwards including the mentally and physically handicapped through Aktion T4, criminals, Jehovah Witness’s and Gypsies, to name but a few. This probably does not include prisoners of war on the eastern front or any other ‘untermench’ that Hitler wanted to have murdered. Remember the White Rose organisation who were executed for opposing Hitler. The Jewish population of Europe were by far the largest of this group and the state of Israel will not allow that to happen again.

    Syria is a problem we should not in any case be involved in, the experiences of the ‘Arab Spring’ show that. How would we intervene, airpower deployed from Cyprus, i don’t imagine the Israelis allowing strike aircraft flying over its country, i suspect they will tell everyone to stay out and keep out of their airspace, and they do have the means and great capability to enforce any no fly zone, as the US Navy found out some years ago to its great embarrassment . Any UN action would be vetoed by either Russia or China or both together. We have to stay out full stop, we don’t have the capability to get involved due to successive governments screwing the armed forces over and over again.

  13. John Reid says:

    Wait Syria, is near Israel and divisive in the Middle East?

  14. bob says:

    John Reid : Are you saying is Israel is the cause of the problem or the solution? Are you advocating that the state of Israel is overrun and destroyed, the only democracy in the area.

    Israel, if it has any sense will defend itself and attack anyone who threatens it, but not move over the borders into neighboring states. What would you do if people who advocate your destruction obtain WMDs which if reports are true may include Sarin nerve agents.

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