The Devil's in the detail: Why specifics are needed over Syria

30 Aug 2013

For nearly three years, the world has been torn over how to tackle the humanitarian crisis in Syria. You can hardly blame them for struggling with this, for while the loss of so many innocent lives is abhorrent, finding ways to prevent it is extremely difficult. Assad’s regime is clearly an oppressive force responsible for unimaginable horrors, but his opponents are a diverse lot, many of whom have too many connections to Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah to make them a force that states can rally behind. Add this to fatigue caused by two protracted wars in the last ten years and it is little wonder that nations have been disinclined to intervene. 


The use of chemical weapons though appears to be a crystallising moment. Chemical weapons have been a taboo since WWI (although their widespread use by the US in Vietnam is often understated) and along with biological, radiological and nuclear weapons are devices the use of which in military conflicts is considered unacceptable by the international community. They are banned under international law and, while Syria itself is not a signatory state, this norm is such that it has propelled the US and others to seriously contemplate military intervention in the civil war for the first time.

The legal and moral arguments over whether this is right are raging on both sides of the Atlantic and it is imperative this happens, for the decision is a tough one with the potential for dire consequences. An aspect which has been less considered though is what impact proposed strikes could actually have on achieving the desired goal, however well-intentioned some may deem them to be. At present, the plan has been to use tomahawk missiles to surgically strike against specific chemical weapon sites identified through intelligence. This has been portrayed as the prefect compromise, for strikes against chemical sites would show the world’s continued stance against their usage, but don’t go further in order to bring about a regime change or to militarily settle a complex and difficult conflict. It also has the benefit of having clear objectives and an ability to determine when those are met, something rarely found in previous armed excursions into the Middle East. 

However, this decision has been made hastily and as such, there many questions regarding the details of such attacks which, in states jumping to the moral arguments, have yet to satisfactorily address. Chief of these is the issue of intelligence, for if Iraq taught anyone anything is that it is not always accurate. Questions remain not only over where the chemical sites are but also over who used these weapons and who within the Syrian Army authorised them to do so. To go to war, states need to possess iron clad information, yet conflict has been proposed before the UN has even had a chance to report its on-the-ground findings. That seems a rash move, especially given the mistakes that were made in this area only a decade ago. Doubts here also affect another quality needed for specific strikes to be effective: Accuracy. NATO attacks in Afghanistan and those by US drones show attacks from the sky can all too well go awry and, without further information, attacks are unlikely to be pinpoint and decisive, and therefore will do nothing to improve the lives of those they are meant to protect. 

There has also been little mention as to how to deal with retaliatory responses. Thanks in part to the Kremlin, the Syrian Army has the capability to strike back and would surely do so if it suffered from foreign aggressors. Interveners don’t want to widen their involvement in the conflict, but attacks against Syrian military hardware that would surely be conducted would certainly be interpreted by many as being exactly that. How then should this to be dealt with? At present, there’s been no real answer. 

So while specific military options may sound an appealing way of offering civilian protection, the use of limited conflict in application has sufficient enough complexities as to question its ability to achieve its goals of protecting Syrian civilians. It is for this reason that time is needed, a beat taken and the UN report produced before the next move is decided. With last night’s rejection of military action by the UK Parliament, that looks like well becoming the reality. This allows more facts around the attacks to emerge and prevents a kneejerk reaction which, given the atrocities, is understandable, but which is inadvisable given the always profound and complex decision to use military force. It may also give time for a more internationalist response to be formed, allowing action to have a more global feel rather than consisting only of the views of a few powerful nations. 

Those advocating action will likely use this time to continue to argue that it defends the international norms of preventing chemical weapon attacks, concepts almost universally supported. They would do well though to also demonstrate the extent to which military means are realistically capable of meeting these goals. Coupled with greater evidence provided by the UN, this may give a broader picture as to the viability of military action and therefore of its need. Without this however, a lack of specific information will likely mean many will be unable to make a decision regarding military action that is sufficiently conclusive.

By Daniel Kibble

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