The latest reports of chemical weapons being used in Syria are another instance where taking a moment to step back and think about the conflict is the best thing we can do. A few things to consider:
1) Chemical weapons change nothing.
In a conflict which has already claimed over 100,000 lives, fatalities from chemical weapons are a drop in the ocean. Chemical weapons are horrific. Bombs, bullets, shrapnel, artillery shells and sniper fire are equally horrific, and they are already being used on a vast scale in the Syrian conflict. To pretend that somehow chemical weapons are “worse” than conventional ones is a travesty. War, violence and death are uniform horrors, irrespective of how they are inflicted. The Syrian conflict has been horrendous from day one, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future. Chemical weapons are simply another facet of this awful conflict.
2) Even more important, the West/UN/whoever cannot get international backing to intervene.
The Chinese and Russian governments have made it absolutely clear they will neither support nor tolerate any attempt to effect a regime change in Syria, even under the guise of “peacekeeping”. This is not going to change today, tomorrow, next month, next year or ever. The Chinese and Russian governments are committed to the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign nations. This is mainly because they have some questionable domestic policies of their own that would make them vulnerable if such interventions became common place. This means that they are absolutely opposed to any UN action that would involve intervention in Syria. There will be no UN sanctioned “liberation” of Syria while China and Russia hold seats on the security council. Moreover, the Assad regime’s allies in the region, particularly Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon will oppose, possibly with military force, any intervention, and we can be sure that regimes like that of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Omar al Bashir in Sudan and a host of other petty dictatorships will strenuously oppose intervention on pretexts that could just as easily be used against them.
Which brings me to my third and most important point.
3) Any intervention in Syria will be a disaster of unimaginable proportions.
There are so many ways in which a Western intervention in Syria will go wrong that I cannot do justice to them here, but a brief overview will do.
Hezbollah and Iran have actively and in Hezbollah’s case directly intervened in Syria. They literally have “skin in the game”. Any Western intervention, and that includes airstrikes, will involve direct military action against Hezbollah troops and Iranian assets in Syria. This will instantaneously kill any chance of Iran agreeing to negotiate over its nuclear programme, reignite the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict in southern Lebanon and kill the recently revived Israeli-Palestinian peace process stone dead. Renewed conflict on Israel’s border with Lebanon will inevitably spread to its border with Syria, drawing Israel, with its undisclosed nuclear arsenal and legion of enemies in the Islamic world into the conflict.
Moreover, even if Iran does not respond directly by military means to a Western strike/invasion of Syria, the Islamic Republic will surely take steps to retaliate against the West, including possibly attempting to interdict oil shipments through the strait of Hormuz. Western intervention in Syria also has the potential to exacerbate conflict in Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq will be given a new lease of life by a fresh Western act of aggression against an Islamic country, and it already has allies among the more extreme elements of the Syrian rebel groups. The prospect of Iraq based militants getting involved in Syria on a large scale against Western troops raises the spectre of the chaos in Syria spreading to Iraq. In which case, in a cruel irony, Western troops may find themselves back in Iraq having only recently declared the country “secure” and left in a hurry.
Finally, Western intervention in Syria will severely complicate the West’s relationship with other countries, particularly Egypt. If Western powers will intervene on the side of Islamist rebels against a brutal military dictatorship in Syria, why not in Egypt, which is heading towards an identical situation? How will the Muslim Brotherhood and the military in Egypt react if Western forces attack Syria? How will other regional players, like Hamas in Gaza, Al Qaeda in Yemen, the Taliban in Pakistan/Afghanistan and the Kurds in Syria, Turkey and Iraq react? There are a lot of vested interests at play in Syria, and a ham-fisted intervention by the West could quite possibly bring them all into the conflict.
Finally, an intervention by Western armies with their immensely powerful air forces, armies and copious amounts of high explosives will trigger another exodus of refugees from Syria that will dwarf the current one. Thousands of people have crossed the border into Iraqi Kurdistan in the last week alone. Over a million Syrians have fled the country already. Another spike in numbers could overwhelm neighbouring countries like Jordan, which are already struggling to cope with the influx.
As I have said previously, bombs and bullets added to yet more bombs and bullets will not solve anything. Western military action will just get more people, and potentially many many more people killed. If other countries wish to act to help the Syrian people, they can do genuinely good things, like assisting the refugees from the conflict, and the countries that have take them in. Let the West and the world build roads, schools, hospitals and sadly, orphanages for the victims of the conflict. Let them send doctors, nurses, teachers and aid workers instead of soldiers, fighter pilots and more death. Help is something you give people, not something you fire at them. We can only hope that the countries currently calling for “intervention” in Syria will learn this lesson sooner rather than later.