Syria: Are chemicals really a ‘red line’ for the United States of America?

Photo Credit: Matt Ortega

Photo Credit: Matt Ortega

In the aftermath of the dreadful use of chemical weapons in Syria, the international community seemed ready to plot its next steps and respond. Military action against Assad’s regime was on the table with the US, UK and France appearing to have reached a consensus. However, on the 29th August the UK government’s motion to use military force if necessary in response to their conviction that Assad’s regime was behind the use of chemicals fell through, being defeated by 285 votes to 272. It was the first time since 1782 the UK government lost a vote about military action and the first time since the Suez crisis in 1956 that the White House and the House of Commons do not agree. It seems as if Britain is suffering from the Iraqi syndrome as the US did after the Vietnam War.

Specialists in the field suggest that international conventions, protocols, doctrines have been violated and the picture of the situation has changed and thus a military action is justified. To begin with after the meeting of the UN’s Security Council on the 19th July, in which China and Russia vetoed intervention, the Assad regime shelled the city of Homs which is illegal. Moreover, by supporting the Arab Leagues wishes, the Arab world would be encouraged to take responsibility for its own affairs and thus help to bring stability to one of the world’s most turbulent regions. At the same time a possible quagmire in Syria, in which Western interests might be subverted, would be avoided. Finally, Iran’s support toward Assad’s regime has placed Syria even further into an international context and thus, the argument goes, international involvement is required.

Undeniably, we are all shocked by what has been happening in Syria in the last two years and as I have stated in another article in the past, the Arab Spring has been rendered into a bitter winter that unfortunately has not yet fulfilled the protestors’ ambitions. That can be confirmed by the recent events in Tunisia and of course in Egypt. However, at the time when the UN has not come up with their report regarding who is responsible for the use of chemicals, it is at least disrespectful towards the organization and hypocritical- not to say suspicious that the international community is even discussing possible intervention. Why did the UN go there if we already knew? How does the US Secretary of State John Kerry already know that Assad used the chemicals as the inspectors of the UN had just left? (31/08/2013)

At the beginning America’s argument was based upon the punishment of a cruel dictator, however now it seems that it is going to attack Syria on the grounds that the Assad regime used chemicals. Yet by the time the West reacts the chemicals would have been removed! Surprisingly enough though, America’s policy and tolerance with regards to chemicals is not consistent and it is far from being the ‘angel’ of international justice which protects civilians from the ‘devil’. It seems that the American government was well aware of the chemical attacks carried out by Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s, both against the Iranian army and his people, and not only did it do nothing to stop him, but to make matters worse, supplied him with the coordinates of the Iranian force concentrations in full knowledge that he would use that information to poison them with nerve and mustard gas. Iraq is a member of the Geneva Protocol which prohibits the use of chemical weapons in war. Thus, America ought to have at least imposed sanctions and condemned it, yet no such action was taken. Obviously, America’s reactions to violations of international prohibitions are not consistent and indeed there are possible accounts for the differences in its approach.

What one could argue is that America is ready to overlook and even abet the use of chemicals by its allies or associates, like Iraq in 1988 when the US was trying to contain Iran. On the contrary, when America’s opposing regimes make use of chemicals and possibly breach the international law, it is ready to take military action against them, as it has already done in Iraq 15 years after its use of chemical weapons. Consequently, the American government can decide when it wants to take action and when not to.

A possible military action without UN’s consent would probably spark international outrage but after all it won’t be the first time. On September 16th 2004, the Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan, speaking on the invasion in Iraq said, ‘I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN Charter. From our point of view, it was illegal’. To be fair though, America seems determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past and Barack Obama seeks the Congressional authorisation. The Congress is due to reconvene on the 9th September and to that end any possible military operation would not happen until then. Perhaps history won’t repeat itself.

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