The views expressed in this op-ed do not necessarily reflect those of the “!” Student Newspaper.
Since the chemical attacks at Ghouta, outside Damascus, on August 21st, the world has been divided as to how to respond. With Britain’s attempt at intervention falling flat after a House of Commons debate and vote, and Russia speaking stridently against any intervention whatsoever, the only nations willing to offer military assistance to a US intervention are France, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Tacit support has come from the governments of Canada, and South Korea, with Israel and Turkey swinging as to whether they would join an intervention. The fact remains: a monstrous act was committed, but does a monstrous act require a monstrous response?
The British government, under David Cameron (Prime Minister) and William Hague (Foreign Minister), has been in favour of action against Assad for months, first spearheading the lifting of the EU arms embargo to the Rebel forces, and then condemning the chemical attacks of the 21st. This culminated in a vote on intervention on Friday 29th of August, on two motions, one proposed by the government, and the other proposed by the opposition. This debate ended with both motions being defeated, in a catastrophe for intervention. Contrary to statements put out by the opposition, under Ed Miliband, the Government motion would not have led to missile strikes on Saturday morning. The full text of the Government’s motion would have allowed intervention only after a second vote in Parliament, more evidence, and a clear strategy, formulated according to The Hague and Geneva conventions, and in full compliance with international law. However, in an attempt to play politics, the Labour Party (and Mr Miliband especially) managed to hamstring any British intervention, lethal or non-lethal, whatsoever. This is a stance of which they are now reaping the benefits, as the cries of victory that resounded through the chamber on the Friday turned into what was described in The Times (London, 3rd of September) as “a collective [expletive] moment.”
At the moment, Government policy is that there will not be another vote, as Parliament has spoken, and use of The Royal Prerogative (a constitutional arrangement whereby the Prime Minister gets permission from the monarch to conduct policy, in doing so bypassing Parliament) is out of the question. This leaves it to Labour to call another vote, and risk tearing themselves apart as a party. Perhaps the most bizarre contribution to the British debate on Syria has been from George Galloway, the RESPECT (political party) MP for Bradford East, who claimed that Al Qaeda committed the atrocities in Ghouta, using chemical weapons supplied by Israel. When questioned about this claim, he denied having ever made it (the video is available on YouTube.)
The French response to intervention has been more enthusiastic, aided perhaps by the French Constitution, which enables the President to go to war without the approval of the National Assembly, as long as the operation takes no more than four months. President Hollande used this Prerogative with regard to the recent intervention in Mali, which (at least in President Hollande’s estimation) fulfilled its original aims, and was successfully prolonged in April, when the National Assembly voted to extend the military intervention. France’s policy on Syria has been pro intervention, with President Hollande, along with his Foreign Minister, Mr Laurent Fabius, speaking in support of military strikes against the Assad regime. Indeed, Fabius, in a press conference with John Kerry on the 7th of September, stated that, with regard to Syria, “France and the United States stand together.” Currently, debate in the National Assembly has been in favour of intervention, but with a tenuous hold on power, President Hollande may find that, when push comes to shove, the French people may not be willing to support an extension of an intervention. If this scenario comes to pass, then President Obama may well find himself marooned in a foreign land, without a military ally, struggling to maintain the façade of an “international” intervention.
Throughout the Syrian conflict, Russia has acted as President Assad’s most vocal supporter, decrying attempts at sanctions and intervention, and supplying weapons and aid (most notably S-300 Anti-Aircraft systems) to Assad’s regime. Under President Putin, and his colourless foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian government have tried to tread a fine line between outright and tacit support for Assad, including denying that chemical weapons were used at all. Militarily, the Russian Navy currently has sixteen ships in the Mediterranean, with several more in transit. These ships include anti-submarine frigates, such as the Admiral Panteleyev, as well as the missile cruiser Moskva. Should the US intervene, any military force would have to tiptoe round the Russian vessels, in scenes reminiscent of the Cold War, with a US force trying to conduct its mission with a Russian force constantly looking over its shoulder. President Putin has also, in a series of inflammatory remarks at the recent G20 summit in Saint Petersburg, stated that he would support the Syrian regime in the event of intervention. While this may well be an empty threat, it is not a nice possibility.
While politicians are right to condemn the use of chemical weapons, the risks of mission creep, the risk of another Iraq, the risk of proliferation, now seem too high to be practicable. With an ally who could have to pull out at any moment, and another (semi) ally who, through the actions of politicians deploying what have been characterised as “student politics”, has had to block any intervention at all, coupled with a mercurial Russian presence and President, Obama would be unwise to intervene. Because no matter how noble his intentions, no matter how well thought out his strategy, something will go wrong. It always does.
Lewis Thomas is a junior at OHS.