Syria: the pace quickens — but towards what?

The prospect of military action against the Assad regime by western powers has become increasingly real. Soon it may be all but inevitable. But what kind of action, for what purpose, in the service of what larger strategy? All this remains obscure.


Evidence of massive civilian casualties in northeastern suburbs of Damascus emerged on Wednesday 21 August. By the weekend, Médecins sans Frontières offered compelling and impartial evidence of the horror – over 3,000 patients presenting symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic agents on the morning of the attack, of whom 355 died. Only five days after the attack, increased activity was reported at the UK Akrotiri air base in Cyprus. Meanwhile there was a UN investigation team in Syria investigating earlier allegations of nerve gas use by both sides; diplomatic pressure, with cooperation from Syria’s allies Russia and Iran, got it access to the new attack sites, though as it started work it was shot at by unidentified snipers.

For many people, the issue of evidence will be the big one, especially after it turned out Iraq didn’t have nuclear weapons after all. The conservative Telegraph is clear that the first condition for approving military action is that it be legal and legitimate, which means the evidence must be unassailable.

It is not clear how far the evidence will go, however. The UN investigation team is there to collect blood and soil samples so as to analyse what happened. But their mandate does not include identifying who did it. At the end of their efforts we may have proof that a horrible crime has been committed but not by whom – even if we think reasonable deduction points one way rather than the other. Reportedly, US analysis of the evidence will be released in the next few days but unless the US has agents on the ground and is willing to go public about them, it’s hard to see in advance what more its evidence will show than the UN’s.

To my mind, however, the evidence is far from the most important part of the story. It is an obvious logical point that if the evidence offers unvarnished and unspun proof of grotesque criminality, that does not mean that any action that follows is therefore justified. The argument will depend not only on the strength of the moral case but also on other factors including what action is planned and with what intended outcome.

Action & Scenarios

The predominant image of likely action seems to be air or missile strikes and perhaps increased arms supplies to the anti-Assad forces. For the time being, the prospect of forces on the ground seems not to be a real option in almost anybody’s mind. Thankfully.

I remain of the opinion that a full scale intervention to ensure the victory of the ant-Assad forces would not suit the preferences of US policy makers in particular as well as a scenario in which war continued for a long time. This would bleed the power and weaken the regional influence not just of Assad but of Iran, a much bigger prize.

It’s a grisly scenario and contains nothing but misery for the people of Syria. I am not surprised to find arch-realist Edward Luttwak, author inter alia of the pleasingly titled article, ‘Give War a Chance’, setting out his view in the New York Times at the weekend that an enduring stalemate in Syria is the only viable policy option for the US. He argues it can be simply achieved by arming the insurgents until they are doing well, then denying them arms till they are doing badly, then arming them, then not.

Limited strike

What seems most likely, has started to feature in the political debate and is wholly compatible with a long-term strategy of bleeding Assad’s regime and its backers  is a limited missile strike. This avoids the risks of a major intervention but has nothing else to recommend it.

Of course, if judged by the criterion of ending the conflict or tipping the balance of advantage decisively towards the insurgents, a limited strike will not achieve anything. But there are some proponents of a strike who will come out and say that is part of the point.

UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has already set out the ground for this.  He said that the action would be purely a response to the use of chemical weapons and nothing more: “What we are not considering is regime change, trying to topple the Assad regime, trying to settle the civil war in Syria one way or another.”

In this sentiment he’s joined by Labour leader Ed Miliband who has set three conditions for offering his party’s support to a strike against Assad, one of which is that the action must be “specifically limited to deterring the future use of chemical weapons.”

This seems quite likely to become the centre ground consensus, the moderate view, the political common sense of the day. So let me be very careful and nuanced in expressing my own perspective on it.

It is barking mad. And cruel too.

The success record of limited strikes

It is cruel because it will raise expectations of escalation among Syrians who want Assad overthrown, only for them to be dashed with the passage of time.

And it is mad for two reasons. First, taken on its own terms, there is no reason to expect it will work. What is the record?

Remember US missile strikes against actual and suspected al-Qaeda targets in the 1990s? I would not argue that they caused 9/11 but they did nothing to deter it. Or how about the US air strikes against Libya’s Gadhafi in 1986? Again, I won’t argue they caused the Lockerbie bombing two years later but they did nothing to deter it.

Second, it is mad because you cannot launch missiles at a state involved in a civil war and think you are having no impact on that. It surely does not need to be said that if Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons, that is as part of that same civil war. This is not some other, separate issue. To launch missile strikes without having a clear idea of how they fit into the bigger picture is indeed madness.

a peaceful goal needs peaceful means

And that is the problem, the bigger picture into which missile strikes fit is slowly bleeding Syria and its main regional backer, Iran. The bigger picture that might bring something like real peace to Syria does not include missile strikes.

It is not an easy argument to make for moral outrage about the use of chemical weapons is the obvious civilised reaction. But moral outrage does not necessarily make good political strategy. To repeat points I made when last I wrote on Syria, before they can start playing a useful role in building a more peaceful future for the country, western leaders need to understand three things:

  1. They cannot do it alone.
  2. If they seek a military option, it will not be easy.
  3. If they prefer a diplomatic option, their eventual deal-making will involve negotiating with Russia, Iran and Syria among others.

The use of chemical weapons is awful. But nothing about them changes the political logic of achieving peace in Syria. If that is not the primary goal of western powers then their policy is wrong-headed and duplicitous. If it is the prime goal, then missile strikes are wrong-headed.

17 thoughts on “Syria: the pace quickens — but towards what?

  1. Dan, I fully share your comment. It needs to be seen, whether cool and rational thinking prevails over inner political aspects in US, UK, FR and GE.
    “Three days strikes” reminds. me on “Kanonenboot” Policy of German Emperor Wilhelm II…. After Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya our “leaders” hopefully don’t rush into the next enterprise…

  2. Unquestionably – the volatile situation in Syria is a no-win all around … it is a local war with global implications, choreographed by power mongering warlords and extremists. Even with unassailable evidence that it has been the Assad regime responsible for the horrific use of chemical weapons, therefore providing ‘approval’ to intervene – who wins when one disects the rebels DNA?

  3. Dan,

    I share a lot of your thinking and concern. But you do not deal with the possibility that limited air strikes might at least deter further use of chemical weapons. That would be a gain, although it would not solve anything else, and the other consequences might be negative, as they usually are.

    John Holmes

  4. Dan, well said. A very clear and concise analysis of why air strikes or arming the opposition is wrong. Thank you. In response to John Holmes: what if they hit the stockpiles of chemical weapons (if any); what if that in itself causes more death and suffering because it allows the chemicals to escape into the air? Is it really justifiable for the West to do that?

  5. Your conclusions don’t take us too far:
    1. western leaders already know “they cannot do it alone” (if you mean any one or two of them). Leaving aside military aspects, they want wider international support in the UN. The UK government also wants support in parliament. If a breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention in particular (to which only about five states including Syria do not adhere) doesn’t evoke widespread condemnation, what should? And if a convention that has become an accepted international norm, notwithstanding the non-signers, is to be upheld, a breach must be punished and future breaches discouraged. If it isn’t, the long effort to civilise further the international system, and make it one based on rules, will be set back.
    2. The “military option won’t be easy”: you can say that again, as military people in the counsels of the most likely interveners have been saying for months, and continue to say. The question is whether what can be done is worth doing, at what cost, and to what end. And whether it can obtain the necessary basis of political and diplomatic support.
    3. No doubt we would all like a “diplomatic solution”. But that option has been denied by the people who oppose R2P, the ICC and other efforts to restrain regimes from abusing their own populations. Such a solution would probably necessitate the involvement of at least some of the opposition: would Syria or the others allow that? If they get away with using chemical weapons, what new factor will induce them to negotiate with those they regard as sworn enemies? The state we ought to be able to shame into co-operating is Russia, but where is the recent evidence that she would respond to appeals to reason, compassion, international law, etc if the objective is to bring the Syrian government to negotiations?

    Perhaps we should nevertheless make every effort, short of military action, to claim the moral high ground and expose the nay-sayers for frustrating an effective response. But in doing that and no more, we expose the US, UK, French and others like-minded to the risk that they are revealed as lacking resolve to carry through on something they have said they feel strongly about. That’s not good for the Syrian population, our own self-respect, or the safety of other populations likely to come under the hammer of deeply unpleasant regimes that are willing to use all means to suppress internal opposition.

    I agree with you about the dishonesty of the opposition and minority party in the UK coalition in insisting the aim cannot be regime change. Surely, if a government behaves badly enough, the effort to prevent further oppression of their own people must ultimately include the overthrow of that government if other measures don’t dissuade them.

    The next step ought to be receipt of the UN’s own information about the use of CW, and assessment of how that fits with the national data the west clearly already believe is persusasive. Then an effort to secure the widest possible international consensus on what should be done. We should not rush into action. But in all this diplomatic activity, the maximum pressure should be applied by making clear that the use of force, and possible regime change, are serious options.

  6. Dan, excellent piece.

    I disagree with Edwards implication that a military response / punishment is the only way to go if the Chemical Weapons Convention has been violated.

    However I do agree that your lack of positive, constructive alternatives is a bit disappointing. Please do give us some thoughts – I’m writing a piece today and would love to quote you and give some ideas for options. I understand when many say “there is no good solution” – I’m not looking for solutions, just hope.

    Many thanks

  7. Hi Dan,
    Thanks for your analysis and commentary on Syria.
    I agree with you, and would certainly like to keep in touch with you, as it would be a pleasure to read your views on world affairs.
    I have been travelling in Asia and the Far East since last month, and expect to be back in London by mid September.
    I look forward to hearing from you, and meeting you one day.
    Keep up the good work !

    Best wishes and kind regards.


  8. Hi Dan

    I found your piece really interesting and insightful, as too comments left by other people. I believe that many countries that so often take the moral high-ground on global policing, who are additionally perpetrators of human rights themselves, will face a barrage of ongoing resentment for being hypocrites, whilst cause further conflict and future revenge for their military intervention and/or puppet governments established. What I find additionally difficult to accept, is the fact that for two and a half years over 100,000 civilians have been killed in this civil war, yet little intervention of any sort has been given quick enough, whilst aid is in short supply. I am not saying that Syria should be ignored, but the international community must put the brakes on America and France, to prevent missile attacks, which will only add to the ongoing daily suffering in Syria. Thus in the meantime, humanitarian assistance to bordering countries assisting refugees, and too negotiated aid within Syria with Blue Helmet protection must be stepped up. Whilst on-going peace negotiation needs to be the priority. In my opinion, if you are injured and/or killed from a missile, a bullet, a mine, or chemical weapons – it should all be outlawed. Yes I would very much like to see the removal of Assad, he is a vicious dictator, but I am not convinced his regime are responsible for the chemical weapons used on the 21st August, although Assad has used chemical weapons before, as it could be a tactical move by his opponents. However, the longer this civil war continues, the deeper the hatred and resentment will be; I just hope that the intervention offered, is done with all the lessons learnt in the past in mind.

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  15. Dan in Cyprus some of us here were advising that there should be negotiations with Assad on chemical weapons destruction days before the agreement with President Putin was reached. I actually emailed President Obama suggesting that and only got a response after the agreement was announced from the White House PR staff. I believe you put it well, a strike in the middle of civil war makes no sense and the collateral damage , innocent people being killed from bombing attacks in towns again made no sense. But the fact that the USA and Al guida would have been fighting against the same enemy demonstrated the risks of a US strike. On the strength of extreme islamist forces in Syria Kerry lied to the senate committee , he said that they were about 20% of the resistance. A few days later they defeated the official opposition and threw them out of an important border town. He also lied about the christians in Syria, who are mainly Orthodox. they are in favour of Assad because he has never caused them problems. The islamists have already caused problems for Christians where they have control in Syria. It is a complex civil war, and it should never have come to this. The outcome is unpredictable and dangerous for everyone in the middle east.
    Costas Apostolides

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