The Phony Red Line

News caption errors. UK, April 2013.

UN inspectors are going to investigate allegations of a major chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians by the regime. It’s largely an exercise. The United States has already decided that the red line Obama drew many months ago has been crossed. That line is worth questioning.

The argument over whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria entirely misses the point. The question is whether or not the West should intervene. I have seen way too much certitude on that question. The conflict in Syria has mushroomed into something truly horrifying. Blithely looking at the mixed history of Western, and particularly US intervention and saying no, we shouldn’t step in is far too simplistic, and is also shockingly indifferent to the massive number of civilian casualties in Syria. The UN is not going to act, as Russia will veto any move to militarily oppose the Assad regime, meaning one either acts and defies international law or does not act. Given the illusory nature of the laws of war when it comes to Great Power decisions, that is not a question one can allow to stop action.

On the other side, intervening on behalf of the rebels may well cause more harm than good, hard as that is to believe. The Syrian people have been effectively marginalized from this conflict, relegated by both sides to the role of victim, even though this did begin, over two years ago, as a popular, and largely non-violent, resistance movement. Western arming of the rebels is certainly not going to help. It will be countered by Assad’s allies and will ultimately prolong the conflict. So, it means actual military force on the side of the rebels. It is far from clear that this will be decisive, as, again, Assad’s foreign backers in Iran and Russia, as well as on the ground more locally, in the form of Hezbollah, could well respond with greater support of the regime. But maybe not, and perhaps the intervention will succeed in toppling Assad? Then what do we do about the inevitable sectarian fighting, which may well be just as destructive, that is sure to follow?

I am not certain there is a good choice between those two options. The real trick was the opportunity that seemed to exist earlier in the conflict to find a way for Russia, the US, Iran and the EU to come together with a plan they could unite around to step in and force a cease-fire and a diplomatic resolution. The enmity between those groups mooted that idea. That seems to leave nothing but bad options and a choice for supporting that which we think is least bad.

Sarin gas victim. Syria, April 2013.
Sarin gas victim. Syria, April 2013.

What doesn’t matter, though, is whether chemical weapons were used. The whole group of Weapons of Mass Destruction has become a parody of international order. Does a dead Syrian child really care if she was killed by sarin gas, radiation or shrapnel? Do her parents?

A regular bomb is somehow seen as an acceptable method of murder. So is massive artillery fire, even though for the most part, these methods of killing are just as indiscriminate as a sarin gas bomb. As usual, we’re asking all the wrong questions.

It is the killing that has to stop, not a certain kind of it. The entire idea of WMDs is a propaganda tool that has lost any usefulness it may have ever had and is now simply a way to justify “conventional” war. Someone let me know the moment a corpse tells them it is happy to be dead but upset because they were killed by a WMD rather than a bullet. In that case, I’ll happily revise this post.


Photographs courtesy of   Gwydion M. Williams and  Ninian Reid. Published Under a Creative Commons license.

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