Syria: not too late for diplomacy

Military response by the US, France and Britain fell short of mobilising conclusive evidence on who was responsible for Douma atrocity

Britain’s prime minister Theresa May  in the House of Commons yesterday.

Britain’s prime minister Theresa May in the House of Commons yesterday.

 

Chemical weapons have been used more than 50 times in Syria’s ghastly civil war, according to international investigators, only occasionally attracting the military attention of the large western powers who took action last Saturday to attack their production facilities in Damascus. Their use last week against children and civilians in Douma is an outrageous atrocity which contravenes long-standing international law and must be condemned. The comprehensive impasse in finding ways to resolve the war politically or militarily over the past seven years tempts the Syrian state and other actors to use these weapons and the same applies to the selective mobilisation of international condemnation and military action to prevent that happening.

Impasses and vetoes at the United Nations have stopped any collective action being taken in the years since 2014 when a joint UN effort with the United States and Russia was made to remove chemical weapons from Syria. That was a relatively successful outcome from political initiatives, worth recalling on this occasion.

The then British prime minister David Cameron lost a House of Commons motion to intervene against their use, prompting president Barack Obama to cancel his planned intervention against a chemical attack he had previously said was a red line for US policy. It is now clear that similar or cruder chemical weapons were concealed by the Syrian regime or could easily be reintroduced when international attention waned.

Given the impasses, it is hard to see why the Assad regime should use chemical weapons when it is defeating its enemies in the Damascus region.

The rapid mobilisation of a military response by the US, France and Britain was driven by international anger over the attack; but fell short of mobilising conclusive evidence on who was responsible and happened before investigations on the ground were carried out. That sets damaging and dangerous precedents in such a volatile region, highlighted by bellicose exchanges between President Donald Trump and Russian generals about escalating a conflict if Russian troops or equipment were hit. The attack is presented as a once-off gesture, leaving the battle on the ground relatively unaffected. British prime minister Theresa May made a strong but ultimately unconvincing case yesterday for taking immediate executive action together with her US and French allies without consulting the House of Commons.

British public opinion is strongly against becoming involved in the Syrian war. Any leader faces difficult choices in these circumstances and decisions are determined as much by political factors as military ones. But the prolonged Syrian impasse is better tackled by renewed and more determined diplomatic and political efforts to resolve the war than by such sporadic outrage as could stoke a much wider conflict.

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