2 Sep 2013

So democracy won, now what about Syria?

Three weeks ago this was about punishing the people who used poison gas to murder hundreds of civilians, including children. Now it’s about other things – President Obama‘s leadership, Britain’s decade long trauma over Iraq and the intractable unwinnability of the war in Syria.

Protesters gather on Whitehall outside Downing Street to campaign for no international military intervention in the ongoing conflict in Syria on August 28,

The evidence all points to the weapons being fired by Bashar al Assad‘s forces, although there’s no indication whether he ordered the attack. That doesn’t really matter, because as leader of the regime he has command responsibility for whatever his forces do.

President Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry, are trying to sell their air strike plan to Congress by saying that Syria’s use of chemical weapons is a danger to Israel. They calculate that is a more persuasive argument for US politicians than poison gas being a danger to Syrians. It may work, but some in Congress will vote against because they oppose US intervention anywhere anytime.

On the other hand,  Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain – who tend to recommend intervention pretty much always, everywhere – say they’ll vote no because the Obama/Kerry proposal is too limited. Still others will vote against anything President Obama suggests because their main interest is to humiliate him.

So the idea of a democratic mandate for cruise missile strikes will end up being more about the president’s leadership and the rancid antagonisms of partisan politics than the initial question: how to deal with a regime that uses chemical weapons?

In Britain, the issue has morphed into a question about the prime minister’s failure to rally his own party, and Labour’s reluctance to endorse any military action in the Middle East, however narrow. Parliament’s rejection of the government motion to participate in US strikes means that now it’s about Britain’s relationship with the US, and our diminishing clout in the world.

Read more: Syria vote: has the UK’s global role been ‘diminished’?

Across the Middle East, leaders are carving out their own positions. The Arab League, a body not renowned for its courage and resolve, censures Assad for using chemical weapons but carefully refuses to endorse US military action. In Lebanon it’s a domestic issue: even those who hate Assad fear that US air strikes may further destabilise their own precarious sectarian arrangements.

Syrian rebels who saw the proposed airstrikes as a blow for their side in the civil war are aghast. “Obama lied to us,” one said to me. To them this is about being abandoned, left to fight the Syrian regime with no meaningful western support. To the jihadis, who are also fighting President Assad, this is a moment of opportunity: if moderates are disappointed in the west, despair may drive them into the arms of the extremists.

The Syrian government and its backers in Moscow and Tehran hope that this will be a turning point, if it turns out that western countries cannot even mount limited airstrikes let alone intervene decisively in the civil war.

People keep asking why chemical weapons are worse than others, and pointing out that while 1,500 perished in the poison gas attack, an estimated 100,000 have been killed by conventional weapons in Syria. A horrifying report showing the use of what appears to be napalm near Aleppo points up the issue.

Yet poison gas has been a “red line” for decades because of the agonising deaths and widespread disabilities caused in WWI and the killing of Jews in concentration camp gas chambers in WWII.

Saddam Hussein’s use of mustard gas in Halabja in 1988 was notorious not just because more than 3,000 Kurds died agonising deaths but because the world did nothing – in fact, the US blamed Iran because at that time they supported Iraq in the war between the two countries. Surely this time the “red line” – formalised in the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention – would be enforced.

Western public opinion has turned against military intervention, that much is clear, but those who still regard the use of chemical weapons as beyond the pale have yet to come up with a viable alternative response. Simply to cite “diplomacy” is futile – it’s not as if that hasn’t been tried in Syria.

As we get bogged down in our own politics, we might remember where this started on August 21st: images of choking, gasping children suffering the most hideous deaths. Dozens of tiny bodies being lowered into mass graves. The brave people who shot those videos, and treated those children succumbing to the poison afterwards.

Many people in the US and Britain are delighted at the robust state of our democracies – but how does that help the victims of chemical weapons, now and in the future?

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