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Is there a moral case for a punitive intervention in Syria? One minute I think there is; and then I am not so sure…

Whatever we do, the people of Syria will remain victims of one of the most murderous political criminals—and also of the weakest international leadership—of modern times

By on Thursday, 29 August 2013

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Where do you stand on the morality of a quick punitive strike against the Assad regime? Personally, I grow increasingly uncertain. I am not a pacifist: and I have to say that for us to be effectively punitive against Bashar al-Assad would serve him right and engender a certain degree of general righteous satisfaction, in which I would probably personally luxuriate as long as nobody except bad people get killed and the damage is done against Assad’s military assets, with maybe surgical strikes against one or two of his palaces thrown in. That would teach him not to use chemical weapons again: that would be a good thing, wouldn’t it?

What’s wrong with that? Well, I begin to suspect quite a bit: but then I read a persuasive argument in favour of what is being called a “limited intervention” in Syria , and I begin to doubt my own doubts. Take Monday’s leader in the Financial Times entitled “The moral case for intervention in Syria”, with the stand first “There are no good options but to do nothing is the worst.” I’m afraid I’m going to have to quote some quite lengthy passages today…

Of course the inspectors have to be given a chance to assess the situation. But they should be clear very quickly whether they believe the evidence has been compromised. That chemical weapons were used seems all but certain. The weight of evidence also points to culpability of the Assad regime. It controls enormous stockpiles of chemical weapons, has the military capability to deploy them, and was conducting an offensive in the area on the day of the attack.

Fragmented and ill-equipped rebel forces do not have the resources for such an offensive.

This is the basis on which the US, Britain and France are leading a push for targeted military action. Intervention is not about entering Syria’s civil war. It is about sending a message to rogue states that the use of WMD will not be tolerated… Since [Kosovo] the international community has accepted the principle that it has a responsibility to intervene to prevent atrocities such as those being inflicted on civilians in Syria.

Officials suggest intervention would be limited to a few targeted strikes on military assets – airfields or missile sites… While some will argue that such action is merely symbolic, it will send an important signal to the Assad regime – and other regimes – that the west cannot countenance the use of chemical weapons.

President Barack Obama has come reluctantly to the point of considering action despite his tough words last year that chemical weapons were a red line. Failure to act decisively would weaken his credibility further.

This is persuasive: but that final sentence starts my doubts up again. Obama, in his foreign policy, has been a weak president. If he had intervened in Syria by arming the rebels when they were still relatively respectable secularists, and before al-Qaeda and other Islamist murderers got so heavily involved, there might have been some hope of an Assad-free outcome that would not have been utterly disastrous. Obama has become more and more aware of the fact that his inaction has had disastrous consequences; and under pressure he last year finally declared a RED LINE, which if crossed would mean he would actually do something, irresistibly recalling to me at the time King Lear’s immortal words, “I will do such things — What they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.” This would happen if Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. So now Obama has to do something to restore HIS OWN CREDIBILITY. That’s what this is all really about, isn’t it? Obama’s credibility. He doesn’t intend to topple Assad, or get involved in the war. Nothing will change. But next time he threatens something, he might have a chance of being believed. So we are intervening in support of Obama’s political credibility.

That at any rate is what I find myself suspecting. That wouldn’t necessarily convince me that Assad shouldn’t be punished for the atrocity of gassing his own people. But do we actually know that he did? The arguments that he did seem convincing. But I then discover that commentators I normally respect do not accept them. It isn’t, I find, just the Russians and the Chinese who say it was probably the rebels who did it. Here is Peter Oborne in the Telegraph

Mr Cameron first of all needs to show us that we have solid evidence, capable of standing up in a court of law, that proves his claim that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on a large scale against its own people. On the face of things, it looks highly unlikely that Assad would have carried out such an action – let alone within three days of international inspectors arriving in Syria.

Consider this: the only beneficiaries from the atrocity were the rebels, previously losing the war, who now have Britain and America ready to intervene on their side. While there seems to be little doubt that chemical weapons were used, there is doubt about who deployed them. It is important to remember that Assad has been accused of using poison gas against civilians before. But on that occasion, Carla del Ponte, a UN commissioner on Syria, concluded that the rebels, not Assad, were probably responsible.

“The moral authority of Britain and America in the Middle East is shaky”, argues Oborne; there is, he says, “documentary evidence that the US helped Saddam Hussein’s Iraq launch a series of chemical weapons attacks upon Iran in the late 1980s, an offensive that killed approximately 20,000 Iranian troops”.

“Our moral indignation over chemical weapons”, he concludes, “looks selective”. And that, in the end, I think, decides it for me (until the next time I waver). The question is this: what makes us so sure that we are so clearly established on the international moral high ground that we are actually entitled to dish out retribution to anyone?

Do not mistake me: such “interventions” are not always morally wrong. What Cameron wants to do is, he genuinely believes, for reasons of high moral principle. But so was the imposition on our culture of “gay marriage”: we are entitled to ask ourselves whether or not we trust Cameron’s ideas of what moral principles actually are, any more than we would trust those of Tony Blair (a Prime Minister, who has been far more influential over Cameron, “the heir to Blair” don’t forget, than, say Margaret Thatcher).

“Tis a muddle, and that’s aw”, as Stephen Blackpool says in Dickens’s Hard Times. But he was thinking of the results of a policy of determined non-intervention, of unmitigated laissez-faire, of “letting alone”: of the attitude to society’s victims “Let ’em be. Let everything be. Let all sorts alone.” If we let Syria alone, it will remain in an appalling muddle: but so it will still be if we punish Assad, but leave him in place. And so it will still be if we topple him. All a muddle: and there is my highly illuminating conclusion. “Tis a muddle, and that’s aw”: at least I am ending with a quotation from Charles Dickens.