Syria’s Alleged Chemical Attack – Should The West Have Intervened?

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Since the apparent chemical attack on Douma in Syria on 7th April, Theresa May backed Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron in launching over 100 airstrikes in Damascus on 14th April without a parliamentary vote.

With past controversies over western intervention in the Middle East, it’s important to investigate the political agendas for the air strikes and ask whether launching the air strikes was a rushed reaction.

What happened on the scene?

The patients had symptoms of ‘respiratory distress, central cyanosis (blue skin or lips), excessive oral foaming, corneal burns, and the emission of chlorine-like odour’ – Syria Civil Defence and the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS)

On 7th April, a suspected chemical attack on Douma, the last rebel-held area of the Eastern Ghouta region and 10 kilometres northeast of the Syrian capital Damascus, killed more than 40 people due to exposure to at least the chemical agents Chlorine and Sarin. Chemical attacks in Syria aren’t new – a previous prominent attack occurred in Ghouta in 2013. Following this, although denying responsibility, Bashar Al-Assad’s regime signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroyed Syria’s declared chemical arsenal.

Embed from Getty Images

Regarding the recent attack, Western allies assert that Assad bears responsibility, with France claiming they had ‘proof’. Conversely, Syria, Russia and Iran deny the Assad regime’s involvement and Russia claimed they had ‘irrefutable evidence’ that the attack was staged with the UK’s assistance.

The US, backed by Britain and France, responded with over 100 air strikes on 14 April on targets near Homs and in Damascus, which were intended ‘to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons’, according to President Trump. Two out of three targets (Barzah Research and Development Centre, and Him Shinshar Chemical Weapons Facilities) were assessed as destroyed and there were no casualties. However, according to Syria, Russia, Iran, and Qatari news outlet Al Jazeera, 71 out of 103 cruise missiles fired were intercepted by the Syrian regime. The US has denied this.

Reactions of the International Community

‘Any confirmed use of chemical weapons… is abhorrent and a clear violation of international law’ – UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Since 1993, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is an arms control treaty that outlaws the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons and their precursors as international law. This is administered by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) who declared the attack in Douma a breach of the CWC, commenting that they aim ‘to establish facts surrounding allegations of the use of toxic chemicals, reportedly chlorine, for hostile purposes in the Syrian Arab Republic’. The World Health Organisation (WHO) also demanded ‘unhindered access’ to the affected site in Douma. More importantly, Russia has failed to win UN Security Council backing to condemn the military strikes on Syria.

May backed US-led strikes in Damascus on 14th April, declaring that ‘there is no alternative’. The issue here is that May didn’t seek parliamentary approval for the Syrian strikes when she clearly could have done so on the basis of punitive strikes to force Assad’s compliance with the CWC. This failure to consult parliament not only contradicts our representative democracy and defies public opinion (only 22% support), but also makes it hard to see how the House of Commons stands and in what proportion on May’s foreign policy.

The US, Britain and France also opted to strike Syria for its apparent use of chemical weapons without awaiting a report from UN inspectors. This, alongside May’s rush to back missile strikes without parliamentary backing, brings fears reminiscent of the quagmire of the Iraqi War. Lessons should be learnt that, although costs must be made for Assad’s suspected involvement with the chemical attack, we must ensure the full case is presented with legitimate intelligence and parliamentary and UN approval before launching strikes.

Is there hypocrisy with Western involvement in Syria’s chemical attack?

Considering the humanitarian intention of the US-led strikes, this humanitarian intervention by the West should have the consistency to legitimise such efforts to make the use of chemical weapons by political leaders on their own population, even if rebel forces, taboo. However, Britain has also sold weaponry to Saudi Arabia to use against Yemen, where many are on the brink of mass-starvation, and quietly watched and let Israeli forces recently shoot Palestinian protestors.

Robert Frisk, recalling the Iran-Iraq War, demonstrates how this hypocrisy is historical:

We’re not mentioning the Iran gassings — Iran being another one of our present-day enemies…More likely it’s because of what happened: the institutionalisation of chemical warfare, the use of chemicals by Saddam who was then an ally of the West and of all the Gulf states, our frontline Sunni hero.

Thus, humanitarian intervention shouldn’t stop at Syria, it should apply to all regimes breaching human rights and international law.

Is there really no alternative, as Theresa May says?

‘Without a larger strategy today’s actions will not change Assad’s calculus – to the contrary, they could make the humanitarian situation worse.’ – Dr Zaher Sahloul, President of Med Global

Assuming all investigations fully confirm Assad as behind the chemical attacks in Douma (probable given prior form and the previous gas attack in Ghouta) and is supported by Parliament, I can only imagine strikes working in the short term. Seeing as this isn’t the first time Assad allegedly used chemical weapons, despite the repercussions of 2013, strikes alone aren’t a fully sufficient, long-term deterrent.

Countries involved in the Syrian War must go beyond strikes and incorporate a combination of military, diplomatic, and economic moves. Options for those responses include military action, if necessary and proportionate, but also sanctioning the regime or diplomatically ostracising countries that support it, especially Russia and Iran. This shouldn’t only apply to Syria, but also all other regimes committing similar atrocities. Only then can international law be truly upheld.

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Second Year Politics & International Relations student, who writes mainly international and opinion pieces, with an opinion no one asked for.

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