Alexander Pannett 1.15pm
There are growing reports that the Syrian regime of President Assad has been using chemical weapons against his own people. If true, it would herald the crossing of a “red line” for the US and may lead to military intervention from Western forces.
The use of chemical weapons currently appears to be small-scale, tactical deployments. A few chemical shells targeted at rebel bunkers. The danger is that the use of chemical weapons reveals the growing desperation and determination of the Assad regime to resort to any methods necessary to survive. Now that a precedent has been set, it is no longer unthinkable that Assad’s forces would use chemical weapons against civilians on a larger scale. They have certainly shown no compunction in causing mass civilian casualties with more conventional weaponry.
Assad has shown his disdain for threatened international reprisals if he uses chemical weapons. He has gambled that there will be no direct Western intervention in retaliation and that as Western intelligence agencies are already indirectly aiding rebel groups, there will not be any major escalation in the rebellion. He is correct that the West is reticent.
Considering the quagmire that Syria has descended into, with its kaleidoscope of factions and interests, the West should be cautious about getting directly involved. Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated the cost and strategic dangers of being drawn into wars in the Middle East. Previous Western intervention has exacerbated regional rivalries and sectarian divisions, raising the threat of terrorism, not diminishing it.
However, the wider issue is that the West must demonstrate to the world that it is serious in its stance against the use of chemical and biological weapons. It must also make it clear to Assad that any escalation in the use of such weapons against civilians would herald direct intervention. Otherwise Assad may believe he can act with impunity, which would have tragic consequences for the Syrian people.
Despite understandable reservations, the West should announce that it is now directly aiding secular rebel groups and it should also impose a no-fly zone. With air assets deployed to enforce the no-fly zone, the West can more easily resort to a direct air war if Assad escalates his use of chemical and biological weapons. If direct intervention is required, use of ground forces should be limited to special forces working in tandem with rebel forces as in Afghanistan in 2001. Their main priority would be to secure all biological and chemical weapon sites to stop such weapons from falling into the hands of extremists.
Obama is right to be cautious and will be loathe to commit American forces to an area of the world that is a distraction from the much more strategically important Pacific. But a leader does not choose the events that he or she faces. For now the West should limit its actions to aid and a no-fly zone. But it must do all it can to dissuade Assad from deploying chemical and biological weapons against the civilian population. Only the imminent threat of force will do this.
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