Opinion: Liberal Democrats can’t let Assad away with barbaric crimes

Syria is not Iraq. While Liberal Democrats were right to be sceptical of Blair’s claims about the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction against the better advice of Hans Blix, the UN and his own legal advisers,  the situation in Syria is different in important respects.  In one case Blair and Bush wanted to invade and used chemical weapons as an excuse. There were no chemical weapons. In the other case a genocide against civilians, ethnic cleansing of Sunnis particularly in Alawite-majority areas has been going on for over two years.  Chemical weapons not only exist but have been used on a vast scale as Kerry and Hague acknowledged this week.

The UN team currently in Syria investigating the alleged chemical attack is there only to determine if it in fact took place, not to assign guilt. The question thus remains whether or not the rebels had the capacity to launch such a strike, never mind the fact that it was carried out in an opposition-held area.  A report by the US Congressional Research Service on August 20 makes clear that the Syrian regime has had a vast stockpile of chemical weapons since the early 1980s and that these stockpiles are secure. George Lopez, a professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, who cast doubt on the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, concurs with this assessment. He states that:

 The amount of gas agents seemingly used was way beyond what a clandestine group could mix and develop without detection.  And it is unclear they would have the expertise to mix the agents.

Further evidence released on Tuesday reveals intercepts of panicked phone calls between an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense and the leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard and recorded by U.S. intelligence services and are claimed to be the ‘smoking gun’.

Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, The Cable has learned. And that is the major reason why American officials now say they’re certain that the attacks were the work of the Bashar al-Assad regime — and why the U.S. military is likely to attack that regime in a matter of days. But the intercept raises questions about culpability for the chemical massacre, even as it answers others: Was the attack on Aug. 21 the work of a Syrian officer overstepping his bounds? Or was the strike explicitly directed by senior members of the Assad regime? “It’s unclear where control lies,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. “Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?”

Non-retaliation to this barbaric crime is not an option, at least it should not be for Liberals and Democrats. Not responding to chemical weapons this time round will simply embolden Assad, and others like him around the world, to pursue his policy of progressive escalation which could amount to a genocide on the scale seen in Bosnia, or worse.  First the regime used tear gas to disperse protesters, then bullets, then cannon, mortars, scud missiles and now chemical weapons. All because Assad wasn’t challenged on it early enough and the UN, in Hague’s words, “didn’t shoulder its responsibility.” More than 100,000 people have died so far because of our inaction which has also resulted in Islamists gaining the upper hand in the conflict which is drawing the region into a proxy war with Iran. How can we step back and call this an internal civil war when it has been so blatantly internationalised and the UN instrumentalised by Russia to neuter international reactions, falling short even of condemning Assad’s actions as war crimes?

There is no point waiting for unanimity at the UN to give us the green light to intervene. We should do so instead based on the UN doctrine of Responsibility to Protect enshrined in 2005. This asserts that a state has a responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity,  ethnic cleansing and, if it “manifestly fails” to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and peaceful measures have failed, the international community has the responsibility to intervene. Diplomacy over Syria has failed as we have seen countless times when the Russians watered-down or vetoed one UN resolution after the other, making a mockery of the whole system. Putin will sue for peace only if forced into a corner and his interests are threatened.  If we want to call off the strikes we should state plainly we will do so only in return for Assad’s resignation – putting the onus on him, and Putin, to make the next move.

If you want to know more about what daily life in Damascus is like, and why I haven’t been able to be with my husband since October 2012, listen here to an interview I gave to BBC Radio Leeds earlier this week.

* Christine Gilmore is a PhD student at the University of Leeds whose husband is a Syrian national. She is President of Leeds Friends of Syria and has worked for the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament and European Parliament.

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27 Comments

  • Norman Fraser 29th Aug '13 - 11:13am

    Surely your logic is flawed. Even if I accept the veracity of your information, which I don’t because of its lack of provenance, at best it indicates a confused command system, not the deliberate intent of the leadership of Syria. That question requires resolution before any action is taken.

  • I’m amazed at the way Lib Dems are washing their hands of this matter. The poison of the Iraq war has apparently turned most Lib Dems into isolationists in the style of right-wing nationalism: “It’s not worth a drop of our blood or a penny of our treasure to protect those innocents in far away lands”. After calling it so right on Iraq when the comfort-zone was to joint the chorus for war, Lib Dems now want to retreat to the comfort -zone which this time is for isolationism.

  • Richard Dean 29th Aug '13 - 11:30am

    Whether it is a confused command system or not, we need to send a message loud and clear that this cannot be allowed to happen. The message needs to be heard at the top of the command system and by everyone else in it.

  • The same logic could be used for Iraq – it wasn’t but it could have been

    Saddam was guilty of all the things you accuse Assad of – your first paragraph is fundamentally flawed in that respect. He had done all this and more so the same Doctrine of Responsibilty could be used.

    Plenty of Iraqis were making the same argument as you – did you support them in 2003? If not why not?

    I didn’t support the attack on Iraq and I don’t support this one as it stands.

    Final question, what will the proposed attack achieve in overthrowing Assad. Your idea he will resign because of the threat is naïve.

    The only thing that will remove him is actively supporting the rebels (including Al-Nusra) in a war . This will be opposed by Russia. Putting troops on the ground (idem), or negotiating.

    We should try to move to Stepo 3 as quickly as possible and that needs all sides to be honest brokers – that hasn’t happened up until now. We also would need to deal with Al-Nusra and their fundamentalist friends.

  • @bcrombie – in 2003 it had been 12 years since Saddam Hussein used his chemical weapons and in that time he had been thoroughly disarmed by UN weapons inspectors. He hadnt been a major threat for years and the Iraqi economy was improving and the country was stable. Not even remotely comparable to Syria.

  • “More than 100,000 people have died so far because of our inaction”

    should read

    “More than 100,000 people have died so far because of the conflict between Assad and the rebels and the atrocities against the civil population committed by both sides”

    I am not responsible for gassing anybody in Syria so please don’t imply that I am.

    Besides, how do we know that less people would have died if we intervened earlier? The mortality figures might be even higher. What do you think a successful intervention consists of? Can you please explain the impact of your intervention – how it is going to resolve the conflict or prevent whoever was responsible for the chemical weapon attack from doing it again? You make the case for intervention but don’t actually explain what form that intervention takes. How am I supposed to make an informed decision on the basis of that argument? What targets would you like us to bomb? How do you think we are going to influence anything without ground troops? The only hint of an objective I can glean from your article is retaliation, but retaliation for what? – we haven’t been attacked.

    As already noted, the ‘evidence’ you’ve supplied tends to suggest that the chemical attack might have taken place without authorisation from the regime. That sways my mind further away from taking military action against the regime.

  • “There is no point waiting for unanimity at the UN to give us the green light to intervene. We should do so instead based on the UN doctrine of Responsibility to Protect enshrined in 2005.”

    On the contrary, if you look at the text agreed in 2005, you’ll see that it relates specifically to action taken through the Security Council.

  • Bill le Breton 29th Aug '13 - 12:02pm

    And if such conscience salving posturing leads to escalation involving Israel and Iran, what would you say then – bomb Iran? This is an extraordinarily complex area with alliances and enmities tangled in ways that working out the consequences of any action is impossible. 400 years of hatred and revenge are wired into this situation. It has to be a balance of risks.

    If you do not believe that HMG is already disposing its troops in case of such an escalation then you are deluding yourself. X days ago a friend’s son was ordered back to barracks and sent off at extremely short notice to a neighbouring state to Syria. Strange? he having been told a month ago that there was no likelihood that his unit would see overseas service again in the near future.

  • Sending messages – how utterly pointless. As for “Non-retaliation to this barbaric crime is not an option, at least it should not be for Liberals and Democrats.” – well, retaliation is the action reserved for those that suffer attacks. We would not be retaliating – we would be intervening and meting out punishment as we see fit for ends that suit us, not the Syrians. Besides, what targets are high on the list? We can’t bomb chemical wpns facilities since that almost certainly send toxic materials over a wider area and risk poisoning hundreds/thousands more. Well, if not then perhaps the Syrian military command and control – but…Washington knows that going in and trashing Assad’s communications net, for example, might give a crucial edge to the jostling enmity-ridden collection of rebels groups and provide opportunities for the Al-Qaeda headbangers which nobody wants.

    To quote US sources – “what’s the point of strikes that US officials are describing as “just muscular enough not to get mocked” but not significant enough to actually change the balance of power between the Assad regime and the rebels?”

    There are no good options here, and flinging cruise missiles into this situation is among the worst of them.

  • Norman Fraser 29th Aug '13 - 12:15pm

    Richard Dean, I agree that we need to “we need to send a message loud and clear”, I just don’t see why we can’t talk to them before we decide on our action. Who appointed us the savours of Syria and what is so special about this incident? We didn’t stop the Israelis using white phosphorous in Gaza.

  • Given that Al Qaeda and a slew of Saudi sponsored Islamists make up a large part of the opposition in Syria, how could we let them get away either?

  • MBoy

    There were a lot of Iraqis saying otherwise and he was still carrying out crimes against his own people.

    he hadn’t been a threat externally but internally?

  • “Non-retaliation to this barbaric crime is not an option, at least it should not be for Liberals and Democrats. ”

    There is a lot to be said for this point of view. But how does it end

  • David Allen 29th Aug '13 - 1:31pm

    The “evidence” cited above throws a whole new light on events. Yes the regime side did it – but it may well have been just a massive cock-up, or the work of a maverick acting against orders.

    If that’s the case, what on earth will we achieve by racing to punish Assad? When the truth comes out, the West will look dreadful!

    Wait for those inspectors Mr Obama, if you don’t want egg all over your face and blood all over your hands.

    And if the inspectors can’t clarify everything, find another way to do so. Summon Assad to the UN and demand the truth. If it’s just a massive cock-up, Assad needs to be forced peacefully to dismantle his stockpiles. Which, given the alternative of bombardment, he may accept.

  • “Wait for those inspectors Mr Obama, if you don’t want egg all over your face and blood all over your hands.”

    But the inspectors aren’t considering the question of who was responsible.

  • David Allen 29th Aug '13 - 3:02pm

    Chris, correct in principle, it is not reasonable to expect the inspectors to play detective, so they aren’t being asked to do so, and they won’t present an opinion. Nevertheless facts may emerge. If they don’t, then as I said above, another way must be found. Do we want Assad to jump up, name and hang the guilty maverick who used the weapons, after the West has started bombing?

  • David

    Well, obviously it would be wrong to attack Syria without strong evidence that the regime was responsible. But that evidence wouldn’t be enough to justify military action. Both legally and morally we should need to know that the military action was primarily intended to protect the civilian population and would achieve that aim. I’m completely unconvinced of that so far.

  • Paul Woodruff 29th Aug '13 - 3:32pm

    There are lots of atrocities around the world we seemingly turn a blind eye to – so what makes Syria any different? Why is military action being considered as the solution rather than other means? I hear a lot of hawkish and weaseline comments such as “We must take action because of the use of chemical weapons”, and then see lots of arguments as to the veracity of the various claims around this.

    What I don’t see much of is an argument about what military intervention is intended to achieve.

    If it is to topple the Assad regime – then it is regime change and exactly like Iraq and to some extent Afghanistan. Intervention had massive consequences for the civilian population in both cases. I don’t see how bombing a country relieves the suffering of its citizens. What the change of regime would result in is also far from certain given the uncertain nature of the opposition. Events in Egypt have shown how fragile these changes can be and the further suffering they can cause.

    Where Syria really differs is in the regional and geo-political impact that action will have. Military intervention would further destabilise the balance of power in this volatile region and is likely to have further internation repercussions. The human tragedy now would pale in comparison to any escalation of the conflagration that would result.

  • I was sceptical when I saw a link on another site to this, with the comment that Nigel Farage was talking more sense than the other party leaders, but having listened to it, it’s hard to disagree:

  • Christine Gilmore 29th Aug '13 - 4:36pm

    @Chris the UK government has now set out its case – in line with international law – for a military intervention in Syria on ‘Humanitarian grounds’ even if the UN Security Council fails to endorse the motion before it.

    Downing Street has released a statement, based on the formal legal advice by the attorney general, Dominic Grieve, that limited military strikes to deter future chemical weapons attacks would be in line with international law.

    “The use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime is a serious crime of international concern, as a breach of the customary international law prohibition on use of chemical weapons, and amounts to a war crime and a crime against humanity. However, the legal basis for military action would be humanitarian intervention; the aim is to relieve humanitarian suffering by deterring or disrupting the further use of chemical weapons.”

    If action in the Security Council is blocked, the UK would still be permitted under international law to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Such a legal basis is available, under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, provided three conditions are met:
    (i) there is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;
    (ii) it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved; and
    (iii) the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim (i.e. the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).
    5. All three conditions would clearly be met in this case:
    (i) The Syrian regime has been killing its people for two years, with reported deaths now over 100,000 and refugees at nearly 2 million. The large-scale use of chemical weapons by the regime in a heavily populated area on 21 August 2013 is a war crime and perhaps the most egregious single incident of the conflict. Given the Syrian regime’s pattern of use of chemical weapons over several months, it is likely that the regime will seek to use such weapons again. It is also likely to continue frustrating the efforts of the United Nations to establish exactly what has happened. Renewed attacks using chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would cause further suffering and loss of civilian lives, and would lead to displacement of the civilian population on a large scale and in hostile conditions.
    (ii) Previous attempts by the UK and its international partners to secure a resolution of this conflict, end its associated humanitarian suffering and prevent the use of
    chemical weapons through meaningful action by the Security Council have been blocked over the last two years. If action in the Security Council is blocked again, no practicable alternative would remain to the use of force to deter and degrade the capacity for the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.
    (iii) In these circumstances, and as an exceptional measure on grounds of overwhelming humanitarian necessity, military intervention to strike specific targets with the aim of deterring and disrupting further such attacks would be necessary and proportionate and therefore legally justifiable. Such an intervention would be directed exclusively to averting a humanitarian catastrophe, and the minimum judged necessary for that purpose.”

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/matthewholehouse/100233137/syria-uk-legal-position-in-full/

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23883427

  • Christine Gilmore 29th Aug '13 - 4:55pm

    On other matters I am happy to wait for the UN to report back – as Milliband has asked. However as Chris states the UN observers will ascertain whether or not a chemical attack took place, not who is to blame. The UK and US intelligence services have both stated that they are convinced that Assad was responsible for the attacks. Prime Minister David Cameron believes there is “compelling” evidence from the intelligence services and from publicly available material, including YouTube videos of the atrocity, that it carried out the attack such as the ones I link to below.

    Evidence of chemical weapons launching capabilities: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6CZtF6pGvQ&feature=youtu.be

    Evidence of rocket heads deployed: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kllhsgFrgN0

    However, I would argue that even if this were not to be categorically proven, does it not make sense to “deter and degrade future use of chemical weapons” as the Attorney General has stated by EITHER SIDE in the conflict? Surely destroying these weapons to ensure that they can never fall into the wrong hands is manifestly in our national interest also?

    To those who say that we must not get involved unless there is a UN mandate I would say the following. Russia is a party in the conflict and thus has an interest in blocking all UN action. There is also little incentive for Russia or Assad to sue for peaceful political negotiations without a threat as an incentive. If we simply say that without prior SC approval action would be illegal then we are putting ourselves at the mercy of the vested interests of members of this WWII victor’s club which I personally believe should be abolished as it is not fit for purpose . Asking the UN General Assembly might be a better barometer. Don’t forget that the Arab League is now in favour of intervention.

    We are also essentially saying that conventions prohibiting the use of chemical and nuclear weapons are not worth the paper they are written in unless the interests of all world superpowers, as represented by the SC, are in favour of upholding them. We cannot afford to be selective in this matter. Chemical weapons are prohibited for good reason and we as Liberal Democrats should condemn any and all nations that use them – including the use of white phosphorous by Israel in Gaza. Failure to ensure a robust deterrent equals contempt for the principles underlying these prohibitions and risks allowing any country that is supported by an SC member, to could deploy these at will without fear of retribution. That goes for the US vis-a-vis Israel as much as it does Russia over Assad.

  • Joseph Bourke 29th Aug '13 - 6:16pm

    It is a well presented case, Christine.

    However, in your article you state “Non-retaliation to this barbaric crime is not an option,”. Perhaps so, but it does not necessarily follow that the response must be a military one amymore than the response to the numerous prior outrages committed by the Assad regime since the inception of the Syrian conflict.

    The legal advice of the attorney general is important but ultimatelty the decisiion is a moral rather than a legal one. It has fallen to Europe and the English speaking countries of North America and Australasia to defend and maintain the basic principles of western civilisation inherited from the Greco-Roman polity and Judeo-Christian tradition of law and ethics that underpin the conventions of International law.

    In a 1973 article reflecting on the bloodbath surrounding Bangladeshi efforts to become independent from Pakistan, legal scholars Thomas Franck and Nigel Rodley argued that military intervention for humanitarian reasons “belongs in the realm not of law but of moral choice, which nations, like individuals, must sometimes make.” Forty years later, there’s still not much more to be said.

    In the face of Russian/Chinese obstruction in the security council, the UK needs to make a moral choice as to how best it can legitimately aid in protecting the Syrian population from the ravages of this conflict. That requires clarity of thought about what such an intervention means for us and for the Syrian people in terms of risks and casualties and a clear focus on ‘responsibility to protect.’

  • “Surely destroying these weapons to ensure that they can never fall into the wrong hands is manifestly in our national interest also?”

    But how on earth could the weapons be destroyed?

  • Yes we can let Assad get away with barbaric crimes! He isn’t the first leader in modern times nor the only one at the present time to commit barbaric crimes against their population and we’ve allowed them get on with it …

  • As a Syrian I could not agree more with Christine. Very good article. Basically we have two options here: either to leave Syria to Russia and Iran or help Syrians take charge of their country. If we leave it alone then Syria will either be an Iranian colony on the footsteps of Europe or Alqaeda base. Alternatively we can help Syrians take command of their country…

  • I agree with Syrian Guy and Christine, and I am a strong adherent to R2P. However, much to my surprise, I do think that Nigel Farage does present a powerful case (viz video clip included by Chris) against intervention. He is correct in much of what he says. The problem is that he omits the concept of R2P (it is of course a different question as to whether sending tomahawk missiles at this juncture would further or undermine R2P).

  • Julian Tisi 30th Aug '13 - 9:54am

    Thank you Christine

    An excellent contribution and I’m coming round to the belief that on balance you’re right. Unlike Iraq the facts have been made very clear to parliament, caveats and all. One of the main reasons that Iraq was so wrong was that the facts were deliberately distorted before they reached parliament. It wasn’t so much the “dodgy dossier” but the fact that Blair had removed all elements of doubt from it, changing probabilities into certainties, thus materially altering what was presented as the justification for war. Another difference is that the Iraq war was supposedly to protect the UK and the West from a specific threat (remember “45 minutes from doom”) whereas this is quite specifically sold as a humanitarian response to protect Syrians and others from chemical attack by punishing the perpetrator.

    The main caveat I had before was the claim by Assad that the rebels were actually to blame. But I’m starting to see that this is highly unlikely. They simply wouldn’t have had the capability.

    What a shame then that a mixture of those wanting to see more evidence (Labour, LD “rebels”) quite understandably and right wing Tories “we don’t care about humans if they’re not British” have voted this down.

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