Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Red, Red Lines

Guest Article by 
Julie Lenarz  Executive Directior Humanitarian Intervention Centre
Simon Schofield - Senior Fellow Humanitarian Intervention Centre

Washington wants to stay out of Syria at any cost. With his inaction, Obama is betraying the core principles of American benevolence.  He is belittling his country’s power and influence in the world and empowering dictatorships and crime regimes. Our allies are left out in the cold, whilst our enemies are stronger than ever. Moreover, the administration’s lack of leadership and credibility is putting the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians at risk, and further risks emboldening Assad, who may decide that America’s moving red lines allow him to act with impunity.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a genius offer to President Obama with his proposal to have Syria withdraw and destroy all of their chemical weapons. This plan allows Obama to stick to what appears to be his current foreign policy position of determined inaction, whilst saving face on the international stage. As Obama’s ‘red line’ only covered chemical weapons, the USA backing Russia’s plan allows Obama to enforce the red line without honouring his moral responsibility to protect Syrian citizens from the murderous butcher they are forced to call ‘President’. One would have thought that over 100,000 deaths through conventional weapons would constitute a red line in and of itself.

Russia’s proposal, as well as ignoring the root cause of the issue, which is the senseless murder of well over 110,000 civilians, is ridiculous on a practical level too. For starters, Russia cannot be trusted with its own WMD arsenals, let alone anybody else’s. Russia announced in 2009 that it was dismantling a large part of its chemical weapons arsenal and required around $1bn in support from the USA through the Nunn-Lugar programme in order to do this.

Given the chaotic nature of the battlefield in Syria, quite how this transfer is going to be done securely is completely impossible to ascertain. When UN inspectors were recently in Syria to investigate the chemical weapons attacks they were fired on by as-yet-unidentified snipers. At present there is no evidence of rebels having possession of chemical weapons, but this proposal would pose a good opportunity for them to remedy that. If, by some small miracle, 99% of the chemical weapons were securely withdrawn and destroyed this could still leave ten tonnes of weapons unaccounted for. This would include the Sarin nerve agent used in Ghouta and the world’s deadliest compound, VX, which could well resurface on the streets of London or New York in a terror attack.

American dithering will, in turn, send signals to Iran that US red lines are not necessarily as defined as might be stated initially. Many inside and outside Iran will now be questioning Obama’s declared commitment to preventing the country from developing nuclear weapons capability. If his red lines for Syria become flexible whenever it looks as though he may be expected to order military intervention, why would they be any less so for Iran?

The use of Sarin gas in Ghouta constitutes yet another attempt by Assad to test out his boundaries. We have seen a similar policy before, when Assad slowly increased his air campaign to await the West’s response. When it eventually turned out that the establishment of a no-fly zone was out of the question, the regime shifted its modus operandi accordingly.

It is not the first time that the Obama administration widened the definition of its “red line” concept. In the earlier stages of the conflict, the President declared that “a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around” would lead to US action. He then shifted his position to the point where the US will only get involved if Assad uses chemical weapons on his own people. That point has now been reached, yet the consequences are as unclear and undefined as ever.

Taking the classic Clinton option of doing nothing whilst looking like doing something by ordering Tomahawk cruise missile strikes should be considered a half-hearted strategy at best. Such a tactic is likely to embolden rebels, provoke the regime and give false hope to suffering Syrians, whilst making no meaningful contribution to reduce human suffering.

The Syrian problem is not going away and the longer we wait, the uglier it will become. As Tony Blair pointed out: “Intervention can be uncertain, expensive and bloody. But history has taught us that inaction can merely postpone the reckoning. 

We haven't paid the bill for Syria yet. But we will.” Or as one Syrian woman put it:  ‘We will not forget that you forgot about us.’

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