by Jonathan Todd
Daniel Finkelstein in the Times yesterday quoted Andrew Tabler, a Syrian expert, as saying: “What happens (in Syria) will not stay there.” Which makes it imperative that as large an international coalition as possible is built behind the evidence that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people, constituting a violation of international law that must be punished.
This must not be Barack Obama “shooting an elephant” – the George Orwell analogy employed by Stephen Walt: the strong doing something only because it is expected. It must be the world coming together to protect the weak: those that have been gassed by Assad and those who may have WMD used against them by tyrants in future.
It is incontrovertible that an attack has occurred. It also seems highly likely that the Assad regime carried out this attack. Finkelstein is right that if this breach of the established red line passes without consequence, a green light is given to other evils. Iran and all world-be oppressors would note.
Enforcing that red line is vital. But so is enforcing it in the right way. Transparently drawing upon robust evidence, UN process and established precedent, to build both a watertight legal case against Assad and one that motivates wide support for the actions that follow. Failing to do this would degrade international law and weaken the capacity of the UK and our allies to positively influence the future of Syria and the wider region.
Under a scenario where the US and her supporters retaliate against Assad before UN processes have run their course, they would do so without the support of Russia, China and Middle Eastern states that might otherwise be brought on side. Whatever strikes are executed would be unlikely to remove Assad from power – and may do relatively little to undermine his capacities, while fortifying the resolve of his supporters and backers to resist The Great Satan. Hezbollah may well attack Israel. Western interests would crash under the force of the Electronic Syrian Army. Assad would launch further attacks against his own people – whether using WMD or not.
What would the US then do?
It would be isolated (her supporters being fewer than they would be if they allowed UN processes to take their course) and impotent (her strikes seeming to change little). In these circumstances, the US could either walk away belittled, Syria’s suffering unabated, or seek a potentially impossible redemption.
Arm the anti-Assad forces and Russia – her alienation from the US complete after the rush to retribution of the US – would further arm Assad. Violence begets violence, leaving the inclusive political settlement that Syria requires illusive. While a no-fly zone would be easier to put in place following strikes on Syria, Assad would remain capable of carrying out massacres. This might tempt the US into putting “boots on the ground”. Yet even the most sophisticated army in the world would struggle to end five interlocking conflicts.
The alternative scenario is that whatever punishment Assad receives is done under cover of wide international support. “Ideally,” as Mark Malloch-Brown wrote on the Financial Times website earlier this week, “this would be done under a UN Resolution. If Russia will not allow that, it may have to be done as Kosovo was without initial Security Council backing but with the broad agreement of the international community that terrible crimes were being perpetuated against civilians that had to be stopped. Only if there is broad international legitimacy for such action is there a hope that it will not further split and polarise the region.”
What is lost under the scenario where the US pushes ahead with strikes before allowing UN processes to run their course is this legitimacy. This, however, is far too precious to be squandered. If it is retained then there can be hope for getting, as Malloch-Brown contends, “a chastened Assad and his opponents around a US-Russian sponsored UN negotiating table immediately after” strikes.
This conference would agree the terms for Assad’s departure and the establishment of a government representing all parts of Syrian society, including the Alawites. Such an outcome would not be the democratic utopia that giddy neo-cons thought they were transforming Afghanistan and Iraq into. It would, nonetheless, be a tremendous improvement on the status quo. And it remains achievable – particularly if Russia can be reassured, as the Saudis are encouraging them to believe, that their interests can be protected in a post-Assad Syria. Most crucial of all, though, is that the policing of the red line contravened by Assad retains international legitimacy.
It would establish an awful precedent for this red line not to be enforced. It would minimise the probability of the political solution that Syria will inevitably need – as there can be no military solution to its civil war – for this enforcement to come without international legitimacy.
It is to Ed Miliband’s great credit that he recognises this. By pulling David Cameron back from the brink of seeking to commit the UK to war before the UN processes are complete, Miliband has not only done his country a tremendous service but the whole world.
Hopefully, Obama too can be persuaded of the wisdom of Miliband’s position.
Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist