To intervene or not to intervene?
That is the question troubling many western states. As they watch the civil war in Syria rage on, many people wonder whether NATO will come together as it did in 2011 to end the civil war in Libya. You'll notice that many of the people who previously have called for cuts in the armed forces are the same people at the front of the queue calling for an intervention in Syria on humanitarian grounds (indeed many charities and global peace groups are quick to complain that the west sits on its hands while civil wars rage on, only to complain about the results when interventions do happen).
Today I'm going to make the case that the time for intervention is almost upon us, but not for altruistic, humanitarian reasons.The reality is that an intervention in Syria based on ideals of bringing peace is doomed to a rude awakening.
As we have already seen - in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and in the aftermath of the intervention in Libya - the removal of a brutal dictator does not necessarily guarantee the birth of a perfect liberal democracy. Part of the problem stems from the nature of what a lot of these revolutions or uprisings, whatever you want to call them, really are.
In Libya for example, much like in Syria now, there was not really one cohesive revolution taking place. Instead what we had were various groups spread across a wide geographic area, whose intentions, goals, and political and religious beliefs spanned quite a wide spectrum. In many cases the only thing they had in common to unify them was their opposition to the Gaddafi regime. So it is in Syria, but with Gaddafi being replaced by Assad as the bogey man of the hour.
And as in Libya, once you remove that unifying source of opposition what you're left with is a variety of groups battling for control over the follow on government. These groups do not always agree on the best way forward and in some cases are openly hostile towards one another. Without the old security forces on hand to protect them, such groups have a tendency to resort to forming armed militias to protect themselves, and such militias are subsequently not overly keen to hand over their weapons (and thus their security) to the new authorities, who they may trust as little (or even less) than the previous regime.
Under these conditions it is almost inevitable then that the toppling of a regime like that of Assad in Syria will lead to nothing but confusion, disruption and violence, sometimes for many years to come. Thus an intervention based on the belief that toppling Assad will bring peace is practically a non-starter, more idealistic than realistic.
President Obama, David Cameron, Francois Hollande and others probably realise this, which would certainly explain their current reluctance to get involved. President Obama however left himself a bit of a banana skin by stating that he considered the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a red line for intervention.
And that red line has now been crossed.
Western leaders however are taking great pains to wait for proper verification as to the exact nature of the chemicals used and who used them. Foremost in their minds must be the now farcical looking situation that lead to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, with images of "dodgy dossiers" and claims of Trans-Atlantic UAV's carrying biological weapons fresh in the memory.
This is a perfectly sensible approach to take, and indeed had it been done properly back in 2003 then a lot of unnecessary death and suffering could probably have been avoided. The stark reality facing us now though is that all signs point to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, with the Assad regime being by far the most likely culprit.
If conclusively proven that would - for me - clinch the argument over intervention.
That is not something I say lightly. Intervening in Syria is a whole different ball game to the intervention in Libya. The Syrian armed forces may have suffered losses and a degree of disorganisation as a result of defections and the strain of ongoing operations against the rebels, but the indications are there that they still represent a quite significant military challenge to overcome.
It will not be easy militarily then, nor will it be easy politically. People in this country are tired of war, and as we rapidly approach the final year of operations in Afghanistan I don't suppose the public would be too keen on the prospect of yet another fresh front being opened. Mr. Cameron also has to make a careful judgement, as internal rifts in the Conservative Party combine with a host of other problems such as the slow economic growth and growing tensions within the coalition government, which make his leadership position less stable by the day. Backing an intervention is a gamble for him that could either go very well, or very badly.
But intervene I believe we must. And here are the two reasons why I think that.
Firstly, the use of chemical weapons cannot be allowed to become an accepted norm. The world has previously stood by and watched as chemical agents were used by Saddam Hussein against his own people. If we allow Assad to do the same then we run the risk of creating a situation whereby regimes consider the use of chemical weapons to be a legitimate tool of warfare, whether against their own people or against a hostile nation.
Intervening would set the example for the future that the use of chemical weapons would trigger a serious response by the international community. It would effectively remove the use of such weapons as an option and discourage their development and stockpiling by other nations who might otherwise be tempted to acquire them.
Not intervening does the reverse. It not only sends the message that the use of chemical weapons is acceptable, but for some regimes it may even be seen as a legitimate avenue to explore as an alternative to more serious programs such as the development of nuclear weapons.
Secondly, there is the obvious desire to keep such weapons from falling into the hands of the rebels. As the civil war continues then the risk that rebel groups of various flavours may gain access to chemical weapon sites increases. Without proper training in the handling of such substances they may be as much of a danger to themselves as to anyone else, but the major concern is what will happen to weapons such as pre-prepared artillery shells?
The danger is predominantly three fold. One, that they will use such weapons against what they believe to be regime targets and as a result, inadvertently hit innocent civilians. Two, that if the civil war comes to a conclusion that sees the Assad regime fall, that various hostile militias will be left in possession of chemical weapons that could be used against each other in the ensuing security vacuum. And three, that weapons acquired by certain groups could be passed on or sold to external actors, such as (but not limited to) Hamas, Hezbollah, or Kurdish militants.
This poses a massive risk to the future of the immediate region, and potentially beyond.
For me that makes the case for an intervention, one primarily designed to target Syria's chemical weapons capabilities as a priority, along with the arrest of Assad should the use of the chemical weapons be traced back to the regime. I personally am not overly interested in what happens to Syria in the political sphere. That is for the people of Syria to solve for themselves.
But the risk posed by the Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles should be dealt with. For that we need a coalition with a very limited set of objectives; Destroy or secure for removal all of Syria's CRBN capabilities. Capture Assad, to bring to trial. Maintain only that peace keeping force required for the Syrians to form a new government, taking no sides, followed by a hand over to their own security forces as rapidly as possible.
It won't be pretty. It may very well be costly. But - I believe - necessary.