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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - August 27, 2013

by Mark Malloch-Brown

Veterans of intervention recognise the signs: a ghastly atrocity against civilians tips reluctant politicians and public opinion into action. The chemical attacks last week in the Damascus suburbs of Ghouta have echoes of the massacres in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica or more recently the imminent killing of civilians in Libya by the forces of the late dictator Muammar Qaddafi. In each case, caution is put aside as the moral and geopolitical costs of inaction appear greater than the costs of action.

Syria seems today to have reached that point. The regime’s belated agreement to let the UN weapons inspectors cross town to investigate what happened in Ghouta may reflect that it realises it risks isolating itself as a pariah. In the UK and France, commentators and politicians have made up their minds that it is time to do something about Syria. Government forces could only have instigated such an attack, with UN weapons inspectors just arrived in town, in order to seek a psychological knock-out blow against the rebels: if Bashar al-Assad can do this with impunity and still the West dithers, goes his implicit message to his opponents, then the rebels should give up on ever getting the western weapons and military support they had counted on.

He seems to have over-reached, although in the US there appears to remain greater uncertainty about the “what next”. This is not because Americans are less sure of the evidence but because of the burden of recent history and likely responsibility for the military action that follows. Iraq and Afghanistan have made both America’s military and its current government wary of interventions that have a horrible habit of expanding,
offering no clear exit, and understandably get branded as “American-led”. Further, there is greater coverage in the US of the increasing Islamic radicalisation of the rebels.

But the uncharacteristic unity of the international community in demanding an investigation of the attack has delivered results: for once the Syrians have budged. It has created a slim chance that deft diplomatic action combined with a sharp, but limited, military response might bring all the parties to the peace table. Tragedies of this kind sometimes have silver linings. Stalwart allies of the regime, such as Russia and Iran, called for the UN investigation. The latter government has it own experiences as reason for detesting such weapons – and neither would want to be seen as believing the regime has something to hide.

Assuming the investigation is completed and arrives at an unequivocal conclusion that the regime is guilty of these atrocities, the trick will be to coax forward international agreement on the Security Council. The Russians, and their Chinese partners, will need to accept that such a breach of international law cannot go unpunished and equally the West will need to accept that it must restrain itself from threats of open-ended military action of the kind it is all too ready to throw around in Security Council debates. The Russians and Chinese have come to see the West as using such resolutions as a means of getting their foot in the door for Western intervention on their own terms.

The whole debate about Syria has been doomed till now by how both thought they had been duped in this way by the US, France and the UK over Libya. On their side though, barring an unlikely immediate climb down and resignation by Mr Assad, they must accept that some action such as targeted air action against the rocket sites and airfields from which these attacks appear to have been launched will be necessary to preserve the whole framework of international law and accountability. Ideally, this will be done under a UN Resolution. If Russia will not allow that, it may have to be done as Kosovo was without initial Security Council backing but with the broad agreement of the international community that terrible crimes were being perpetrated against civilians that had to be stopped. Only if there is broad international legitimacy for such action is there a hope that it will not further split and polarise the region.

Either way, with or without a resolution, the key issue is that with more temperate rhetoric on all sides there is an agreed clear game plan to get a chastened Assad and his opponents around a US-Russian sponsored UN negotiating table immediately after such international strikes. This conference should agree both on his departure and those around him who have the blood of war crimes on their hands. It should also sponsor the formation of a broad based government that includes all sides even the ruling Alawites. Because the chemical attack has not changed the most abiding fact about this conflict: there is no military solution – only a political one.

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