26 Aug 2013

Western capitals poised to intervene on Syria – but how?

President Obama has to do something. That seems to be the consensus in western capitals, even as military chiefs utter dark warnings about the dangers of getting mired in the conflict in Syria.

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Despite the delay in reaching the site, UN inspectors should be able to conclude whether sarin, another agent or a mixture was used, but their remit does not include saying who fired the weapons. Nonetheless, the US and other western intelligence agencies have already concluded that the culprits were the Syrian government.

Eliot Higgins, an autodidact who has become one of the best sources on weaponry used in the Syrian war, today posted an analysis of the angles in which the weapons fell and the location of buildings. He suggests that the missiles may have been fired from bases of the 155th Brigade of the 4th Division of the Syrian army, commanded by President Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher.

Another report suggests that the order came from Hafez Maklouf, President Assad’s cousin, who heads Military Intelligence.

Military pundits suggest that the US is likely to launch series of cruise missile strikes from US warships in the eastern Mediterranean or the Persian Gulf. The targets might be military – bases of the 155th Brigade, for example – or symbolic. President Bashar al Assad may not live in the presidential palace anymore, but the Americans could strike it. Attacking chemical weapons facilities has obvious dangers – the US wouldn’t want to poison more people – but might still be possible.

Support, military and moral, will come from Britain, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

None of this will necessarily change the progress of the war in Syria, but that may not be the point. The Americans need to show that if their president defines a “red line”, crossing it has consequences. This a universal message about US power. More than that, they and their allies want to show that if you use chemical weapons – which are illegal under international law – you will be punished.

The laws under which they can do this, however, are up for debate. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said this morning that Britain would not support any action that was not legal.

Ideally, a UN Security Council resolution would authorise the use of force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. This happened in Libya, and that’s why it’s not going to happen now. The Russians say Nato countries over-interpreted the mandate to allow the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi instead of confining themselves to protecting civilians which was the stated purpose of military strikes. Russia will veto any UN Security Council resolution allowing military action against Syria.

Legality of war

Go back one more war, to Iraq in 2003. Unable to get Russian approval for a clear UN resolution, Nato countries used an earlier UN resolution to justify invading Iraq, despite the objections of most international legal experts. (A Foreign Office legal expert who demurred resigned over this).

Back one more war, to Kosovo in 1999. Again, under the threat of a Russian veto, Nato bombed Serbia and Serb targets in Kosovo using the legal justification of protecting civilians, but without a UN Security Council resolution.

Since then, the UN has developed the doctrine of responsibility to protect (R2P) which authorises armed intervention in a sovereign state if diplomacy has failed – but it invokes the UN Security Council.

“If a state fails to protect its populations or is in fact the perpetrator of crimes, the international community must be prepared to take stronger measures, including the collective use of force through the UN Security Council,” it says.

If the US and its allies decide to strike Syria, they will find a legal argument to justify their action. The use of chemical weapons would be a strong one. Syria has not signed up to the convention on chemical weapons, but that doesn’t mean they are permitted to use them under international law.

Contemplating all this, the Americans will have in the back of their minds two earlier conflicts. In Bosnia, they did nothing until the massacre at Srebrenica in which 7,000 men and boys were killed. In Rwanda in 1994, up to a million people were murdered with machetes, grenades and nail-studded clubs, and no-one did anything to stop it. President Clinton, under whose watch it happened, says he has never stopped regretting his failure to intervene.

The involvement of groups linked to al-Qaeda amongst the Syrian opposition makes intervention complex and unpredictable.

But President Obama doesn’t want Syria to become his Rwanda.

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