A dangerous escalation


The rush to military action against Syria led by the United States, Britain and France following the use of chemical weapons on civilians there is ill-advised, of very doubtful legality and potentially full of dangerous unanticipated consequences for the Middle East region. That these horrendous weapons are banned since the Geneva Convention in 1925 carries universal legal validity and that their use is a war crime which must be held rigorously to account is generally agreed. But United Nations arms inspectors sent to validate the attacks have yet to conclude their work. There is still much scope for political diplomacy to tackle the underlying issues in Syria’s civil war before resorting to external military intervention.

Leaders of these three powers have rushed this week to say there is little or no doubt the chemical weapons were used by the Syrian regime against its opponents. Despite strenuous denials that this is so from the Assad government and its international allies such as Russia which instead blames rebel forces for using them, the jump from suspicion to full certainty about responsibility happened within days. A dangerous escalation of rhetoric without conclusive evidence, it risks stoking conflicts in a highly volatile region without thinking through the strategy or purposes involved.

The previous caution towards intervening in Syria by the US, the UK and France, along with their European and Nato allies, was a better calculation of the conflict’s unpredictability and ramifications. The whole basis of the Middle Eastern political order determined by the Anglo-French carve-up of the Ottoman empire after the first World War is put at stake in the escalating Sunni-Shia cleavages unleashed by the previous western invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, by the failure to deal with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and in the popular Arab uprisings. Security and political lines linking these conflicts to external powers, including Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia make the present conjuncture especially dangerous.

Continuing caution about an intervention not supported by the UN Security Council and conducted under the dubious rubric of an ad hoc coalition of the willing led by US, the UK and France is better calculated to protect the region and the world from a deeper conflict. Far more should be done to engage the new Iranian government and Turkey in finding a political way forward and in convincing Russia and the Saudis this would be in their interests. Smaller European Union member states like Ireland and Germany, its largest, should insist the British and French do not and should not act unilaterally like this on behalf of European interests. Abhorrence over the use of chemical weapons must not be used to justify such ill-considered military action.

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