The debate in the UK over what action to take against the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons against its own people is reminiscent of Aesop’s “Boy Who Cried Wolf” fable. The allusion was amplified when former Prime Minister Tony Blair joined the cries for military intervention and succeeded only in reviving memories of the dubious claims about weapons of mass destruction that led to the misguided invasion of Iraq.
Such memories make Britain’s reluctance to get involved in another unpredictable Middle Eastern conflict understandable. The problem with that choice is that, in a globalised world, swamp-like civil wars in one country tend to seep out and have an effect on others, whether they want to get involved or not. The ramping up of tension across the Middle East as a consequence of the Syrian conflict is already clear to see and the regime’s use of chemical weapons presents a long-term threat to global security that cannot be ignored.
The current queasiness about intervention is being exploited by the Syrian regime as it tests what atrocities it can get away with in its brutal quest to destroy the popular uprising against it. Several smaller suspected chemical weapons attacks have already gone unpunished. Allowing Assad to get away with gassing his own people in Ghouta almost guarantees that he will do it again on a bigger scale elsewhere in the country.
For this reason alone, a military intervention in Syria would be entirely justified.
That still leaves the question of whether such an intervention would actually do any good. It is far from clear cut that it will help to solve the conflict and this is where the lessons of Iraq are vital.
The military response to the Assad regime’s chemical weapons atrocity must be much more clearly defined than the invasion of Iraq ever was. It cannot be open-ended or offer any commitment of soldiers on the ground. It should consist of direct air strikes against the type of missile sites, air bases and command facilities used to perpetrate the chemical attack, particularly those belonging to the 4th Armoured Division, controlled by President Bashar Assad’s even more sinister brother Maher, and the Air Force Intelligence Agency.
The regime’s aerial and missile capabilities are its greatest advantage over the opposition groups. Degrading the capacity of these key institutions could have the side benefit of evening the balance between the warring parties. Such an outcome would be useful in pushing all sides to participate in the internationally supervised political negotiations that are almost certainly the only way out of the conflict. The convening of these negotiations should be pursued with renewed vigour by the global community once the air strikes are over.
But there are no certainties that air strikes or any other form of military intervention in Syria will achieve these outcomes. The war there has been allowed to fester for two years and become even more complex than it already was at the start. It will be a long road out of the mire for Syria, whatever happens over the next week or so.
What is certain is that doing nothing will achieve nothing. And there is an important wider perspective to consider. The ban on using chemical weapons has been a fundamental part of the internationally accepted laws of war for over a century. Such laws need to be enforced in order to retain their credibility. The Assad regime, and other brutal rulers elsewhere, will interpret inaction as a green light to use chemical weapons again, which would destroy the international prohibition on their use that has been largely successful for so long. It is in the vital national interests of the UK, and the whole world, to support a limited and clearly defined military strike to stop that happening.
Ultimately, the best response to past mistakes, like Iraq, is to learn from them. They cannot be atoned for by hiding from new and different crises and hoping they will go away. Clearer proof of Assad’s guilt in murdering over a thousand men, women and children with chemical weapons has emerged since last week’s vetoing by the House of Commons of UK participation in military action against the Syrian regime.
It is worth remembering that “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” fable tells how people stopped listening to the shepherd boy with a history of raising false alarms and ignored his appeals - with disastrous results when he finally turned out to be right. The British government and Parliament should look at the latest evidence, bear the lesson of the fable in mind and reconsider their decision.