Startling blue eyes are not something one expects to see in the Middle East. Dark hair, dark eyes, and dark skin is what we Westerners commonly imagine when we cast our mind’s eye toward our Mediterranean neighbours. But, having turned on our televisions to the horrific scenes of last week’s chemical attacks on an embattled suburb of eastern Damascus, the pinpoint pupils encircled in brilliant blue belonging to a young man convulsing on the floor of a Syrian hospital now haunt the West.
A year to the day after President Obama’s ‘red-line’ speech on chemical weapons, it seems almost certain now that President Bashar al-Assad has stuck two fingers up to the West and dared a response. The facts point to the Syrian dictator and his government as the ones responsible for last week’s attack and the West seems poised to respond. Indeed, it is increasingly evident that President Assad is not afraid to rain down poison from above and nor is he afraid of any subsequent reprisals. In response it seems evident that we, as members of a civilised global community, need to respond to this evil and punish these abhorrent crimes. In reality, however, the case for intervention is far from simple.
The complexity lies not in what should be done but what can be done. Simply put, intervening to end the civil war is just not viable. The conflict that has torn apart the country for over two years now has spiralled into a chaotic mess of two hundred years of historical grievances mixed in with modern ideologies and religious fanaticism. What is really happening in Syria, and the wider region, is that the country’s borders are dissolving and its people fracturing. Despite the West’s intrinsic involvement in the historical problems being fought out (mainly from the Sykes-Picot division of the region after the Great War), our understanding of the other two facets – the modern ideologies and religious fanaticism which separates people along sectarian lies – remains wholly inadequate for the purpose of resolving the crisis. Placing boots on the ground will, at best, result in a temporary lull in the violence without addressing the underlying problems propelling the bloodshed. This is precisely what happened during the occupation of Iraq and what is behind the car bombs that still tear apart Baghdad today.
As cold and difficult as it is to say, the West is simply incapable of enforcing a balanced and lasting settlement in the region. In the pursuit of future peace, our only options are to facilitate political negotiations and provide has much humanitarian aid as we can muster.
This does not mean, however, that we cannot intervene directly and decisively in the matter concerning chemical weapons. In this case, the danger lies in letting the shadow of Iraq stop us where we can and should act.
The use of chemical weapons is beyond contempt. They kill civilians and militants indiscriminately, can poison the earth and its inhabitant for generations, and massacre populations on an industrial scale. It is a moral impetrative for those who can act to do so and prevent any similar future atrocities. To do so we must either remove those who are willing and able to use such weapons or remove the weapons from such people’s reach.
As we have already seen, the first option is impossible. Intervening in Syria to destroy Assad and bring him to justice would only serve to make the conflict infinitely worse. Our only option, then, is to remove the stockpiles of chemical weapons from the malignant forces operating in Syria.
Our military objective, then, is clear: destroy all chemical weapon deposits in the country and render them beyond the use of either side. Do so with the backing of the international community and the moral case is concrete. Such an action would be a direct response to a specific problem that we can help to fix despite our impotence in regard to the wider crisis.
This is not to say, of course, that such an option is easy and without its own risks. There is no guarantee that in one thunderous attack the West would be able to destroy all of Syria’s chemical weapons, which itself would lead to repeated strikes and a protracted involvement. Nor is it certain that bombing chemical dumps is safe – the US, for example, takes painstaking care to destroy their own chemical stockpiles far from population areas in case of any inadvertent leaks. Furthermore, it still remains unclear if any action can be made legal should Russia and China choose to be obstructive at the Security Council.
Despite these significant concerns, our policy makers and war leaders need to brave and, at the very least, try to make a military strike work. For if we choose to take the easy route and do nothing, then we will all be guilty of the complicity that condemns those who seek to remain neutral and aloft when the moral imperative is to do otherwise. For as Dante Alighieri warned in his Divine Comedy:
The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.