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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Minus a decisive intervention, Syria will see more bloodshed

Assad will not refrain from more chemical gas attacks to break the rebel stranglehold in Idlib. Anyone who knows the topography there harbours fears about the nature of the warfare to come, writes Damien McElroy

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) delivering a speech today calling the US, UK and France 'criminals', after the three countries bombed multiple government targets in Syria in an operation targeting alleged chemical weapons sites. EPA/Iranian leader office handout
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) delivering a speech today calling the US, UK and France 'criminals', after the three countries bombed multiple government targets in Syria in an operation targeting alleged chemical weapons sites. EPA/Iranian leader office handout

The deputy leader of Hezbollah had some reassuring words last week for anyone worried the current conflagration in Syria would spiral to a new level.

He observed conditions did not point to a “total” war being imminent while adding there was always the possibility of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu losing their minds. However Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, trumped his deputy on Friday when he declared Israel had already made the historic mistake of engaging in direct conflict with Iran.

This is the wider context in which today's strikes against Syria's chemical weapons facilities by the US, France and Britain took place. It is also less than a week since Israel targeted a Syrian airbase with its own warplanes.

Damascus immediately dubbed the western attack a "tripartite aggression", reviving language from the 1950s Suez crisis. In fact what has taken place was deliberately minimalist and misses an opportunity to change the course of the conflict.

International law states that punishment for use of chemical agents in warfare must be proportionate. That surely allowed scope for western leaders to make dramatically different choices to correct the mistakes of both 2013 and last year.

Inevitably there are comparisons with former president Barack Obama's failure to enforce his red line over the use of chemical weapons. But this current action does not represent a turning point.

As the world’s preeminent power, America in 2013 failed to exercise leadership, creating instead a void to be filled. That turned out badly because no single country could shoulder America’s role.

So a raft of rivals stepped forward, each with extra latitude to pursue their own agendas. America maintained its own objectives so it remained in the mix but at a diminished level.

The unspoken justification for Mr Obama’s reluctance back in 2013 has been heard in the current crisis. Diane Abbott, a voluble and unreliable British politician, used it last week to oppose any attack on Bashar Al Assad.

The western powers should not act as the air wing of an extremist-dominated Syrian opposition, she contended.

If that was a real fear in 2013 (it was), it is exactly the wrong conclusion now. The Russian intervention, the presence of Iranian and Hezbollah fighters and Mr Al Assad’s use of chemical weapons has put paid to the threat.

Last year there was a textbook demonstration of a missile barrage, which showed up the limited impact of targeted strikes in a warzone. US President Donald Trump then ordered retaliation for the Khan Sheikhoun attack with 59 missiles. The fusillade crippled a military airport for just a matter of days.

Those strikes were clearly not proportionate. Mr Al Assad resumed a pattern of siege followed by gas attack that culminated in last week’s chemical attack.

If the West really sought to uphold international law, it would go further to affect real change in Syria. That would mean crippling the military forces that perpetrated this attack.

Dean Acheson, a former US secretary of state, was the architect of America’s post-war supremacy and in 1947, he stated the purpose of western power went far beyond narrowly defensive arrangements such as Nato. The point was, he said, to affirm the “moral and spiritual values we hold in common”.

There can be few greater challenges to those values than the current course of the Assad regime. With the spectre of an extremist takeover already banished, the imperative could have been to enfeeble the command and control system that deploys gas on the battlefield.

It could also have reflected that Mr Al Assad’s security forces have been rendered auxiliaries in their own country by Tehran's powerful presence on the ground.

Minus a decisive intervention, Syria will see more bloodshed. There will be chemical gas attacks to break the rebel stranglehold in Idlib. Anyone who knows the topography there harbours fears about the nature of the warfare to come.

Nationwide, Iran has completed its stranglehold on Syria. It has a land corridor that stretches all the way to Tehran.

Under Iran’s tutelage, Syria inevitably takes on the role of a launchpad for attacks on Israel. The hardware is already assembled and under satellite surveillance. The direction of travel is clear and that separate moment of the showdown is rapidly approaching.

The fork in the road in Syria cannot be avoided by Moscow’s roadblock. As Russia has mainly conducted an air war in Syria, the West need not feel it cannot attack other aspects of Mr Al Assad’s war machine.

Bring to mind the stoic attitude of Marshall Ferdinand Foch, the French commander of the western front. “My centre is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent, I am attacking,” he famously declared.

Opting for an unexpectedly bold approach is too easily criticised as reckless but wars end when a decisive act cuts through the clutter.

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