Quick Thoughts on Syria and Chemical Weapons Use


A quick and dirty analysis of the Syrian situation – perhaps more accurately termed, my opinion on the Syrian situation! Some of this has been mentioned in my posts so forgive me for repeating myself but I fancied bringing it all together.

As previously mentioned, there are two very distinct and very particular issues here and people and the media are conflating the two and coming to completely the wrong conclusions in my opinion.

Issue Number One is the “Civil War” in Syria. As has been evidenced by two years of doing almost nothing of any great consequence, the West is not interested in getting involved in it full stop. This is not least because both sides are abhorrent to the liberal west. The rebels are closely intermeshed with Al Qaeda elements (whatever they are these days) whilst Assad has shown no moral scruples and is backed by Iran and Hezbollah. However, at the very least Assad represents a known entity, and some degree of stability were he to regain control and contain the rebels.

A rebel victory meanwhile would arguably tear open the region, cause massive instability in Turkey and who knows what form of Government might come out of it, if any – all in a country that as we know. possesses chemical weapons and a pretty modern armed forces. Either way, an Assad victory or a rebel victory, neither is the perfect outcome for the liberal west.

And so we’ve sat on our hands.

Chemical weapons, or Weapons of Mass Destruction are Issue Number Two.

The term WMD has not been bandied about for the obvious reason that it has mildly negative connotations for that part of the world. But that is what chemical weapons are. They represent the ability to cause massive disruption, degradation and plain old death relatively simply, and very efficiently. Against military units a strong chemical warfare (CW) capability is degrading enough, meaning as it does, having to fight in respirators, spend time decontaminating people and kit and also to conduct CBRN reconnaissance’s and avoiding areas contaminated with persistent agent. Against a rebel force with next to no defences against CWs they are a game changer. They are also indiscriminate and illegal to use.

The fact that CWs are an illegitimate and hence illegal weapon of war has been a central tenet of western liberal thought and policy since the Great War. WMDs arguably again landed square centre in the policy sights of the western world after 9/11 when what can be described as 5x rounds of ammunition caused 3,000 deaths.

That WMD use is not to be tolerated has been a completely fundamental pillar of western defence and foreign policies since 2001. That is worth saying again, that chemical weapons are not a legitimate weapon of war has been completely fundamental to western policies and has underpinned a decade of diplomacy and foreign interventions. We invaded Afghanistan because it contained and was harbouring a group who had used WMDs; we invaded Iraq because we thought they were there; we torment and prod Iran so they don’t develop them and before now we’ve warned Syria about their use.

And it is this issue, Issue Number Two, the Chemical weapons issue that is inviting the use of force.

The evidence is clear – when they were used in a more limited fashion by Assad we sought to increase the military effectiveness of the rebels and now they have been used in a more sophisticated and concentrated attack there has been a very sharp change in the rhetoric and actions of the west.

Even Germany, yes Germany, is calling for action to be taken.

If no action is taken a decade of foreign policy will be totally undermined in an instant – failure to act de facto legitimises WMD use (not possession, but use) and this sends a very loud and clear message to Iran and other groups: if you make it hard going for us we won’t respond to WMD use. Chemical weapons thus become a legitimate weapon of war again. At best the can is kicked down the road and we have to deal with this later in the future: at worst our reluctance to act this time means CW release occurs again and again by regimes wanting that bang for their buck and we do nothing until trouble knocks on our door again since CW use will have become normalised.

That chemical weapons were used is beyond all doubt. Nobody, even the Syrians, are denying chemical weapons were employed. The fact that the west WILL respond is also now not in doubt – to not act on the matter would be as I have argued, a serious and fundamental mistake and an instant reversal of policy that saw us invade two countries and constantly threaten another. The rhetoric coming from Washington, Paris, Berlin and London is strident and is setting the scene for some sort of retaliation even in the face of difficulties with the UN.

The question now is, would action be legitimate? I believe it would since international law is very clear on chemical weapons use. The fly in the ointment is who released the weapons? Should we be pointing fingers at the rebels and not Assad? I don’t have any of the evidence but I am fairly confident that intelligence is pointing very firmly at the Syrians having used them – deliberately or by accident. The rhetoric is again clear – the missiles are being pointed very firmly at Assad, who is also the person we’d rather see win this Civil War. We are finding ourselves in the position now of having to retaliate against a murderous despot who we actually wish to see prevail since he represents at the very least, the possibility of some stability in a dangerously unstable region. We wouldn’t be doing that if we didn’t have the evidence.

So what military action may be taken?

The fundamental limitation is that we do not want to get involved in the Civil War.

We therefore do not want to influence it – that means arming the rebels is out of the question and boots on the ground are beyond being out of the question at the moment even if anyone had them to put down. This also means directly supporting the rebels using air power is not something we really want to do at this stage as we’d literally be supporting our enemies – Al Qaeda & Co have killed far more Americans than Assad.

So this leaves the front-line ground forces out of the equation I argue. Furthermore, because this is likely to happen without a UN resolution the target list is going to have to reflect the narrow scope of the illegal action being punished so it is likely to be aimed at the ability to launch further CW strikes which will include C3 nodes and artillery units. This is because it will probably prove easier to justify the strike under the international laws that forbid CW use when we don’t have a UN resolution.

So we have a strike that is becoming far more limited in scope already just because of the legal implications and the fact we don’t want Assad to fail – we simply want to deter him. So the strike will not be against Assad or any regime targets unless there is a direct implication that someone from the regime ordered their use and we can target them – a remote possibility indeed. In any case it won’t be Assad targeted as I have said because we want him to win and furthermore, killing him is also likely to bring the whole house down and invite the chaos we wish to avoid.

It also won’t be a manned strike. Syria has an intimidating IAD system – this is not Libya or Afghanistan. Any manned penetration is going to mean having to take down the Syrian IAD system and that represents a massive escalation into an endeavour akin to that of Desert Storm. There has been no indication whatsoever that there is any appetite for this level of action which would further undermine Assad and invite the chaos we fear whilst seeing heavy coalition casualties.

So the strike is likely to be (a) punitive and targeted firmly against the tools and mechanisms of chemical delivery, (b) be limited to missile strikes and (c) seek to show that CW use is illegitimate and nothing more since we do not want to get involved in the Civil War. So everything is pointing at a very limited action with token French and British involvement I imagine if Parliament allows it with a constrained target set.

So in conclusion, we have beef in these events.

The beef is the possibility of chemical weapons use (WMD use) becoming normalised and legitimised. This has enormous implications for the future international order and threatens to undermine decades and decades of policy. Therefore action is necessary, but limited action, with the limited aim of sending the message that chemical weapons use is not acceptable. It is absolutely not about getting involved in this Civil War nor is it about destabilising Assad on any fundamental level at the moment and choosing sides. Our objective must be to punish and deter further CW use – to make their use more risky and thus less useful.

The strike is going to look like a wet fart when it happens I wager – a massive anti-climax, but the damage is not anywhere near as important as the message. The message is: stop using chemical weapons. We will not accept their use.

The elephant in the room is where do we go if he gives all this reasoning the big middle finger and uses them again in complete defiance relying on our not wanting to overthrow him and on top-cover from Moscow?

My honest opinion is that the obvious will happen – escalation.

The question is, on a fundamental level, is it better to legitimise WMD use and all the global implications this has and all the security and defence issues it raises, or is it better that a limited patch of territory called Syria falls to the chaos and our rebel enemies?

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