Striking Syria (or something must be done …)
There is an image in the Channel 4 News library of a man kneeling at the feet of a shrouded body, his face pressed against the shins of what is probably a dead relative, his shoulders gently shaking. (Coverage of the chemical weapons attack in Syria, August 2013)
Channel 4 News (Wednesday 28 August 2013) was challenging General Lord Dannatt that the UK “Cannot stand idly by”. Others have been saying “something must be done”.
“Something must be done” is in itself a dangerous phrase – It is what is being said in a different context about Bovine TB (see earlier post). It is dangerous because it appears to justify a “thrashing out” – for the sake of “doing something”. The phrase however is more properly “something must be done …“; it is the ellipsis that is the key element.
The ellipsis represents the end of the phrase which is so obvious that it is omitted.
“Something must be done to improve the situation/to stop this happening again.”
I think that was one of the reasons that the House of Commons last night (29 August 2013) rejected the Government’s (amended) motion to pave the way for the UK to take part in an American attack on Syria.
The something must be done has been caused by revulsion at the chemical weapons attack on Syrians last week. But this has been finessed into taking action to uphold the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) (adopted by the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on 3 September 1992)*, muddled in with an argument that unilateral action can be taken to protect civilians (the doctrine of humanitarian intervention).
The question seems to be what is to be done and will it improve the situation?
This is one reason why Lord Dannatt was saying in response to the Channel 4 News challenge, you “Can’t shot first and ask questions afterwards”. He went on to say (House of Lords debate 29 August 2013 in a substantial speech):
… The campaign plan must have a beginning, middle and end and it must take us to an exit strategy that leaves the place that we have gone to in a better situation than it was before we went. I do not think that we know how to do that because the risks, uncertainties and unintended consequences are too great. …
Some form of military strike (short of “boots on the ground”) have been proposed by both the US and the UK Governments. It has been suggested that the purpose of strikes could be:
- to deter use of chemical weapons by “punishing Assad”:
- this may deter “people like us”, but we have signed the Chemical Weapons Protocols
- is unlikely to deter people like Assad. but may prove to him that he is a Syrian martyr
- to “degrade” Assad’s military capability
- this smells of regime change – which opens a whole extra can of worms – the least of which is who or what would replace him – hold on to Assad for fear of someone just as bad? The contrarian George Galloway spoke eloquently and with his usual passion about the fears of minorities should Assad fall.
- strike at the chemical weapons themselves
- this is unwise as we do not want them going off and causing further damage
- nor do we want to undermine their security and allow anyone to get hold of them
- to make us feel better – “something is being done”
So it is very unclear what is to be done (other than get Assad eventually into the International Court at The Hague)
Will any action improve the situation? If we cannot deter Assad and we cannot safely destroy the chemical weapons from the air, we are not doing much more that pulling the tiger’s tail. We might provoke him (or his allies Iran or Hezbollah) to “take it out” on rebel areas, to attack our base in Akrotiri in Cyprus, or even to “light the blue touch-paper” and attack Israel. There is unfortunately a severe chance that any military intervention might make the humanitarian situation worse.
It is perhaps significant that military leaders such as Dannatt have been advising against a military intervention.
Dannatt’s speech in the Lords (ibid) directly addressed the “something must be done” issue:
Clearly, your Lordships believe that we should be doing something. Doing nothing is probably not our historical responsibility. What we should be doing, in my view, is two things, in the main. First, we should renew with great ferocity our diplomatic activity, particularly to try, through greater dialogue with the Russians, to bring some degree of unanimity to the United Nations Security Council.
We also have to work much harder for regional engagement and regional peace. What if we had bombed Iran two years ago? Would we have any chance of the kind of dialogue that is now potentially beginning with Iran? No, there would be no dialogue there. Regional engagement is critical.
The other major thing that we should do is rigorously apply law. When a leader of a country has broken international criminal norms, he must know that there is a very high probability that he will wind up in the dock somewhere in The Hague.
Unfortunately such actions do not grab the headlines like a military strike; it is interesting that the General is advocating politics, whilst our Prime Minister was advocating military action.