Syria The Times 26 August 2013


Syria The Times 26 August


Seventy-seven years ago the League of Nations, the UN’s predecessor, faced a crisis.


Italy, flagrantly breaching international law, invaded Abyssinia. The League failed to act because Germany and Japan effectively vetoed it. From that moment, the League ceased to exist as an effective institution and was put out of its misery in 1939. Prime Minister Baldwin told the Commons, the League “failed ultimately because of the reluctance of… nations… to proceed to… military sanctions”.


What has happened in Damascus is a challenge to our humanity. It is also a challenge to our system of international law.


If the international community will not now find the means to make it clear that we will not tolerate the use of weapons of mass destruction, like poison gas, for the mass murder of innocent citizens, then the fragile structures of international law that we have painfully erected these last twenty years will be undermined, and the threat of the future use of weapons of mass destruction will be widened.


So far, so easy to say.


But what to do?


The diplomatic things are easier – the military ones, as always, more difficult.


The first necessity is the truth. William Hague said last week that this was Assad’s work. No doubt he had solid reasons for that judgement. But that does not mean he was wise to voice it. Better to have followed President Obama and give time for the UN to give us the objective truth – or at least as much of it as possible – than state this as a western Leader’s opinion, however well founded.


The present task is to keep focussed on a single, simple aim from which we should not be distracted– get those inspectors in. The Russians seem to want this, too. So here is a Syrian something we can work on in common for a change. We should concentrate on this alone and allow nothing to get in the way – and certainly not the current pointless public sabre rattling. It’s good that Obama and Cameron have spoken. It’s good to prepare. But better to do it quietly, than noisily. This is a time for quiet voices and big sticks, not the other way round.


But here’s the rub.


The evidence of this crime is fragile and degrades fast. It may even be that the full truth is already beyond our reach. But that does not mean there is no truth to be extracted, even this late, from the aftermath of these horrors. We may have to be satisfied now with partial truths and uncertain judgements. But the more truths we have, objectively gathered and impartially stated through the UN, the stronger the basis for further action.


But what action?


Politicians should not play arm-chair Generals. Our job is to define what is needed, not decide the action.


Here what is needed is something proportionate, consistent with international law, closely defined and tightly targeted on the crime. So no, to no-fly zones – even if they were militarily possible. And no to arming the rebels too – even if that was wise (which by the way neither are). It means something sharp, quick, specific and punishing.


And preferably – strongly preferably – legitimised by a UN Security Council Resolution.


Here the west needs to understand the new limitations of its power. Some say this is getting to look like Bosnia after Srebrenica. Maybe in some ways it is – but in many more ways it isn’t. Syria is far, far more complex and with far greater geo-strategic consequences, than Bosnia ever had.


But even if it was like Bosnia, we, the West, are not like we were then. Iraq, Afghanistan and the economic crisis have robbed us of the moral credibility we had then and the military capabilities we had then. A Bosnia and Kosovo style intervention, however much some may itch for one, is not just unwise – it is beyond our means. And, incidentally, beyond the tolerance of our voting publics, too.


So today, we need to do the best we can to build the best common ground we can, with both Russia and China as permanent members of the Security Council. That will not be comfortable, or pleasant. But things will be easier where we succeed in this and harder where we don’t.


But what if, even in the face of damning truth from the UN inspectors- or enough of it for a damning conclusion – Russia and China still continue to veto appropriate sanction against this terrible international crime?


Then we are faced with two very unpalatable alternatives.


We can either acquiesce and so set the precedent that, even in the face of the most egregious breach, probably since the UN was founded, of that part of international law which protects the rights of citizens, no action will be taken if a great power wishes it so. In that case the UN and all it stands for will be hugely diminished as an effective organisation for the future.


Or we can take unilateral action ourselves. In which case the UN will be damaged, too.


Tough choice.


My instinct?


I would hate it, but on balance I judge the second to be preferable to the first. Action taken with the aim of underpinning international law, even if it in the end doesn’t, is better, it seems to me, than no action with the certain consequence of undermining it.


Look at what followed Abyssinia in 1936.