Instead of removing the chemical weapon threat, another western assault on the Arab world risks escalation and backlash.
Seumas Milne Guardian/UK 27 August 2013
All the signs are they're going to do it again. The attack on Syria now being planned by the US and its allies will be the ninth direct western military intervention in an Arab or Muslim country in 15 years. Depending how you cut the cake, the looming bombardment follows onslaughts on Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Mali, as well as a string of murderous drone assaults on Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.
The trigger for the buildup to a new intervention – what appears to have been a chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta – certainly has the hallmarks of a horrific atrocity. Hundreds, mostly civilians, are reported killed and many more wounded. But so far no reliable evidence whatever has been produced to confirm even what chemical might have been used, let alone who delivered it. The western powers and their allies, insist the Syrian army was responsible. The regime, which has large stockpiles of chemical weapons, undoubtedly has the capability and the ruthlessness. But it's hard to see a rational motivation. Its forces have been gaining ground in recent months and the US has repeatedly stated that chemical weapons use is a "red line" for escalation.
Whatever evidence is produced this week, it's highly unlikely to be definitive. But that won't hold back the western powers from the chance to increase their leverage in Syria's grisly struggle for power. A comparison of their response to the Ghouta killings with this month's massacres of anti-coup protesters in Egypt gives a measure of how far humanitarianism rules the day. The Syrian atrocity, where the death toll has been reported by opposition-linked sources at 322 but is likely to rise, was damned as a "moral obscenity" by US secretary of state John Kerry. The killings in Egypt, the vast majority of them of civilians, have been estimated at 1,295 over two days. But Obama said the US wasn't "taking sides", while Kerry claimed the army was "restoring democracy".
In reality, western and Gulf regime intervention in Syria has been growing since the early days of what began as a popular uprising against an autocratic regime but has long since morphed into a sectarian and regional proxy war, estimated to have killed over 100,000, balkanised the country and turned a million people into refugees.
Until now, the western camp has been prepared to bleed Syria while Obama has resisted pressure for what he last week called more "difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment". Now the risk to US red line credibility seems to have tipped him over to back a direct military attack.
But even if it turns out that regime forces were responsible for Ghouta, that's unlikely to hold them to account or remove the risk from chemical weapons. More effective would be an extension of the weapons inspectors' mandate to secure chemical dumps, backed by a united security council, rather than moral grandstanding by governments that have dumped depleted uranium, white phosphorus and Agent Orange around the region and beyond.
In any case, chemical weapons are far from being the greatest threat to Syria's people. That is the war itself and the death and destruction that has engulfed the country. If the US, British and French governments were genuinely interested in bringing it to an end – instead of exploiting it to weaken Iran – they would be using their leverage with the rebels and their sponsors to achieve a ceasefire and a negotiated political settlement.
Instead, they seem intent on escalating the war to save Obama's face and tighten their regional grip. It's a dangerous gamble, which British MPs have a responsibility to oppose on Thursday. Even if the attacks are limited, they will certainly increase the death toll and escalate the war. The risk is that they will invite retaliation by Syria or its allies – including against Israel – draw the US in deeper and spread the conflict. The west can use this crisis to help bring Syria's suffering to an end – or pour yet more petrol on the flames.