Syria: why would Assad invite a Western intervention by using WMDs in a war he was winning?
By Tim Stanley World Last updated: August 27th, 2013
Woah! Hold your horses, Barack. Before we go to war with Syria can we be absolutely surely sure that we've got our pretext right? Only we've made a horrible mistake about WMDs before…
The official UK/US narrative on the conflict in Syria is this. Last year, we drew a red line in the sand: if the regime uses chemical weapons then it makes itself a legitimate target for military action. Last week, it apparently did just that – murdering hundreds of people, including children, in a suburb of Damascus. John Kerry described this slaughter as defying "any code of morality", and he demanded "accountability" from the Assad regime. There could, he insisted, be no doubt that the government is culpable – and anyone saying otherwise is a tool of cold blooded killers. Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war, etc, etc.
Kerry's narrative is full of holes. First, we've yet to ascertain that chemical weapons really were used by Assad – specifically we've not determined a) what kind of WMDs they were or b) who actually did it. The situation is complicated by how difficult it's proving to get to the site of the attack to carry out tests. But this is a war zone, and forensic tests take longer and are more complicated to execute when you're surrounded by people trying to blow each other up. So it's going to take time.
Second, why would the Assad regime do something so stupid? It must know that by using chemical weapons it would isolate itself from any international support and invite a Western military response. More importantly, Assad was already winning the war – so why bother to use WMDs during the last lap to victory? Indeed, the only people who have anything to gain by Assad using chemicals are the rebels, because that would internationalise the conflict in a way that they have long lobbied for.
Third, why is the West obliged to act even if Assad did use chemical weapons? We are not under any such treaty obligations and the subject sure doesn't feature as a trigger for war in the US constitution. The red line itself has slimmed and thickened over time. When Obama first laid it down, it was thin to the point of invisible, quote:
We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised… That would change my equation.”
So all Assad had to do to get America's attention was move a "whole bunch" of WMDs around a bit. He didn't even have to use them. But while Obama was shockingly vague when he made that statement back in August 2012, now Kerry uses very precise language to denounce a specific action that hasn't even been verified as being Assad's fault. By the way, if the West was looking for a pretext to intervene in Syria on humanitarian grounds then it's had plenty already: Assad's been killing tens of thousands of innocents for two years. So what difference would one chemical attack make?
Maybe Kerry is right and maybe the Syrian government did use WMDs on its own people. But we've got one very good reason to doubt his accuracy: Iraq. Remember that back in 2003, the then US secretary of state, Colin Powell, told the UN in no uncertain terms that Iraq definitely had WMDs. Definitely, definitely, definitely. We now know that it didn't. We now know that the CIA got its intelligence wrong, that because Saddam Hussein used to lie about having chemical weapons the US judged that he still was. It's true that when dealing with a dictatorship built upon fabrications, trusting its word is almost impossible – but it's not logical to assume that we must proceed on the basis that everything it ever says is a lie. There is a scintilla of a possibility that Assad is innocent of this particular war crime. Should we go to war on the basis of a false accusation, we would be guilty of what TS Eilot called "the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason".