By Shashank Joshi
8:06PM BST 22 Aug 2013
If the casualty figures emerging from Syria this week are correct, then Wednesday’s massacre in the outskirts of Damascus will be the worst poison gas attack the world has witnessed since Saddam Hussein’s slaughter of Halabja’s Kurds in 1988. UN weapons inspectors sit a short drive from the site of the attack. They could collect the samples that would furnish evidence of what has eluded us so far: proof that the Assad regime is not just inhumane, but is also shedding one of the last taboos of modern warfare. Yet the inspectors cannot go in. They are prevented from visiting anything other than three agreed sites. The government is naturally withholding permission; serial killers rarely usher the police into their victims’ homes. And while it is easy to blame the UN for this perversity, to shift blame on to the mythical “international community”, the fault in fact lies squarely with Moscow and Beijing.
Some observers, many of whom should know better, continue to claim that Russia and China are vetoing Western military action in Syria. But they are doing no such thing. They are resisting not war, but the truth. Russia is insinuating that rebels murdered several hundred of their children in a strategically critical neighbourhood merely to prompt intervention. It is entitled to hold this absurd belief. But how interesting that Russia also prevents us from testing this lurid hypothesis. Those who rightly demand a high standard of evidence for such serious allegations are also obliged to demand that such evidence be urgently collected. But Russia, China, and their many apologists have utterly failed to demonstrate that consistency.
So exactly one year after President Obama declared that he would draw his red line in Syria at the use of chemical weapons, and only two months after concluding that they had indeed been deployed, the message being sent to Assad could not be clearer: do as you please. There is no one to stop you, or even dig up the bodies.
Yesterday, the UN Security Council called not for an investigation, but for “clarity”, as though rows of dead children with cold limbs and foaming mouths were not clear enough. This was a veritable diplomatic excretion, not even reaching the pathetic level of a non-binding statement. Chemical weapons are most effective in large quantities against unprotected opponents. Assad previously seemed to be conducting small attacks, under some imagined threshold but also limited in military utility. But those gloves now seem to be off.
The Security Council has been leapfrogged in the past. Both the Kosovo and Iraq wars lacked formal sanction. And yesterday, the French foreign minister called for the use of force – provided the massacre were confirmed. His words, though, were doubly shielded: first with his caveat, which he knows cannot be met under the present deadlock, and second with the implicit understanding that it would not be French jets taking the lead in dropping bombs.
He knows this because, contrary to the ravings of conspiracy theorists who interpret every atrocity in Syria as a contrived pretext for a Western war, the Obama administration could not be more transparent or brutal in its realism. The mass killing of Syrians does not present a threat to the security of the United States, and every military option is deemed to be either too costly, ineffective, or unavoidably escalatory.
In part, this is the same paralysing risk-aversion that one observes in US policy towards Egypt’s generals, unwilling to cut aid even when a junta mows down its opponents. Yet more fundamentally, Obama is afraid of winning. As his most senior military officer, General Martin Dempsey, noted: “It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favour. Today, they are not.” This is the misfortune of Syria’s chemical victims: to be represented by a plethora of squabbling opposition groups, rebel factions, and jihadists.
Options short of war, such as providing weapons to vetted rebel units, meet some objectives – applying pressure to Assad and strengthening moderates – but do nothing to lessen the prospect of more chemical warfare. Perhaps the most militarily feasible choice would be limited strikes on the means of delivering chemical weapons – aircraft, missiles, and artillery units. But there would be surviving stockpiles and a surviving regime. The public pressure to ramp up to a larger war would then be irresistible. The White House understands that public opinion is fickle, quick to raise its demands and slow to forgive.
Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, wrote the book A Problem From Hell about American inaction in the face of 20th-century genocides. That term ought not to be used lightly, but Syria’s horrors echo the paradox she explores: “This country’s consistent policy of nonintervention in the face of genocide offers sad testimony not to a broken American political system but to one that is ruthlessly effective. The system, as it stands now, is working.” Today, Samantha Power is an integral part of that system, railing pointlessly against Russian and Chinese obduracy in a New York talking shop. Meanwhile, Syria sinks into its own hell.