Home / Opinion / Guest Article: Our Failure to Act in Syria is making the World a more Dangerous Place

Guest Article: Our Failure to Act in Syria is making the World a more Dangerous Place

Guest Contributor: Advisory Board Member Peter Watt

2nd June 2013

Use conventional weapons and you will be on the right side of the red line. Use chemical agents and we will move the red line.

I remember in the aftermath of the second Iraq war engaging in a discussion with some people opposed to the war.  It was a very hot topic and many people had very strongly held views.  I was then and still am a supporter of the decision to invade Iraq and to remove Saddam Hussein; the people I was debating were not.  But it was in fact a friendly discussion and there was mutual respect despite fundamental disagreement.  I certainly understood their objections and could see their point.

But there was one thing that I couldn’t understand.  I asked whether they could see any circumstances in which there was evidence that a “rogue” country had weapons of mass destruction that we should act forcibly to disarm them.  They said “no”.  I pushed; what if Iran or North Korea for instance developed a nuclear weapon?  Again they said ‘no’.  In fact they said that we had no right to stop them having a nuclear weapon as we and the U.S. had them.  If we or the United States had them (so their argument went) then it was only fair that Iran or North Korea could have them as well if they wanted them.

Now personally I think that this is palpable nonsense.   We and the U.S. are democracies, respect human rights, basic freedoms and free-speech.  To be frank we have every right to both have nuclear weapons ourselves and to demand that others do not.  Something incidentally that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its 190 signatories agree with.

Does that means that I think that our liberal, democratic way of life is better than the totalitarian or unstable alternatives then yes I bloody well do!  And I think that these ideals are worth defending.  And so I just couldn’t see how it was possible to argue that there weren’t circumstances that force may have to be used to ensure that some states did not become owners of the ability to kill millions.

And I think the same is true when it comes to chemical weapons.  Should rogue states be allowed to possess them and threaten their own populations or those of their neighbours?  Again “no.”  And in the last resort we should be prepared to use force if necessary to ensure that this does not happen.  To do otherwise would be irresponsible in the extreme.

Which brings us to Syria.

History will judge us harshly for the way that we have allowed the people of Syria to suffer and to be massacred by the Assad regime.  It will shame us all and we will have to explain to our children how we have stood by and let 70,000 people die so far.  It is not just the immediate and on-going killing.  Who knows what the long term consequences will be for the region and indeed the world of a generation of Syrians so systematically brutalised?

But there is another consequence unfolding that could have equally dire consequences.  And that is the effective impotence of the rest-of-the-world to respond to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad, on his own people.

The problem is that for months the world, and most importantly other despots, have looked on as Assad has shot, bombed and shelled fellow Syrians.

Certainly harsh words have been spoken and stern faces have been posed at condemnatory conferences.  But the truth is that word has gone out that the rest-of-the-world may speak tough but will do little more.  Succour has been given to other dictators desperate to stay in power.  And now we have, in all likelihood, the use of sarin gas by Assad as he comes under increasing pressure from the rebels.

President Obama said that using chemical weapons is a red line and would be a “game-changer.”  It was a threat – the message to Assad was if you use chemical weapons then we will act.  That is the point of a red line, it is unequivocal and not up for negotiation.

But there are two problems with this.  Firstly the implicit inference is that using shells, tanks and fighter planes to terrorise your population will be tolerated.  And secondly, that if indeed chemical weapons have been used then there had better be action or the clear message is that talking tough is the only response to be expected if you use a weapon of mass destruction.

Already there is concern that the red line is a little fuzzy.  A White House spokesperson said this week:

“If we reach a definitive determination that this red line has been crossed based on credible corroborated information, what we will be doing is consulting closely with our friends and allies and the international community more broadly, and the Syrian opposition, to determine what the best course of action is,”

I bet that Assad is quaking in his boots at that!  All he has to do is hamper any enquiries into whether he has used chemical weapons and it will be tricky to get credible corroborated evidence.

And anyway, what is the chance that Russia and China will play ball with President Obama’s red line?   Meanwhile the chance that a future attack by terrorists will contain chemicals rather than nails increases.

So the world is watching.  And in particular those dictators who may need to suppress their populations.  Use conventional weapons and you will be on the right side of the red line.  Use chemical agents and we will move the red line.

I am sure that we all feel safer as a result.

Peter Watt is the former General Secretary of the Labour Party 2006-2007 under Prime Minister Tony Blair

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Human Security Centre.