Tuesday, 27 August 2013

What is a 'punitive' military strike against the Syrian regime?

The argument to be put to parliament by Cameron and Clegg and supported by Miliband for a military strike against the Syrian regime is that 'something must be done'. I have never really liked the 'something must be done' line of reasoning. It usually means that the end game has not been thought through. It usually represents a degree of hand wringing. 'We can't stand idly by' is often used when it might be better to do just that. It is of course a difficult choice. To do nothing. But you should only act if by so doing it will be effective in bringing about a better outcome. If it is simply to 'punish' then what really would be achieved? If it is to deter future use of chemical weapons then what kind of action would be sufficient to do so?

The use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime is abhorrent. Of course it is. But at best what is proposed is 'punitive' action to deter future use of chemical weapons. Unless it is well targeted I cannot see it acting to deter Assad from future use unless it is carefully targeted to take out his stock of chemical weapons or his means of deploying them.

I suspect it is desperation that is driving the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Both sides are desperate to break the deadlock in a bloody civil war. An effective strike against Assad would weaken his regime further, and it is weakness, desperation that is driving the use of chemical weapons by the regime. Cameron must demonstrate how a strike against the Assad regime would achieve its objective.

An effective strike against Assad would likely tilt the balance in favour of the opposition forces. If this is part of the objective then we should be honest about it. Indeed there could be a better argument for such an objective. The problem would then be whether such 'honesty' would be equally 'legal'. And here we have the Iraq problem repeating itself.  Transatlantic differences between Bush and Blair are instructive. Blair's justification was 'weapons of mass destruction'; Bush's objective was 'regime change'. A smidgeon of difference perhaps. But in reality the later required 'shock and awe'; it is doubtful whether the elimination of  WMD justified it. (Now I know I will be jumped on for using the word 'doubtful' in such context).

France, the UK and the USA emphasise the importance of any action against Assad being proportionate. So far none have spelled out what this means.

A punitive strike against the Syrian regime begs another question. Would we be willing to strike 'punitively' against the opposition forces should it be found that they too have used chemical weapons? On the latter, the jury is out. We just do not have sufficient evidence.

I suspect that behind the rhetoric from France, Britain and the USA is a deeper seated desire to do something to tilt the balance of power in favour of the opposition forces. Red lines are usually invoked to bring about justification for action rather than as the objective itself. This is true in Iraq. Blair's current justification is that 'well Saddam was a thoroughly bad person' and his regime killed hundreds of thousands; all of which is true, but it didn't need a 'red line' to be crossed to tell us that.  I would certainly love to see the Assad regime toppled, but what will be the aftermath?

I also suspect that a strike against the Assad regime will lead to the need for further action as it is likely that the Assad regime will increase its determination to survive at all costs. The die is cast. The regime would have the hangman's noose to look forward to should they be toppled.

I will listen carefully but sceptically to the arguments presented  to parliament by Cameron and Clegg.

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