I don’t usually stray into current affairs quite so much as this, these sort of situations are too raw to even think about designing games about them. However the press coverage seems to be quite off base to me, seeing this as a repeat of Iraq/Afghanistan where it appears to me to be closer to the break up of Yugoslavia, or perhaps the Rwanda genocide. Also much of my experience in trying to understand conflict can be brought to bear on this situation.
The Known Facts
There aren’t a huge number here, propaganda is getting in the way, however as far as I can ascertain the following are facts:
- There is very messy civil war in progress in Syria
- The opposition is a fragmented & disparate group
- Assad isn’t in control of his people as much as we (or he) would like
- There are millions of displaced people as a result of the civil war, and tens of thousands of casualties
- Neither side appears to be living by the Geneva Convention, or any other of the generally accepted rules of armed conflict
- The Syrian Government does have stocks of chemical weapons, particularly Sarin. (It is known that in the 1950s a lot of German technicians helped arm the Syrian army, before Syria became a Soviet client state).
- There was an incident invovling civilian casualties and what looks like nerve gas poisoning (although tests have not yet shown results).
What definitely isn’t known (at least not to people without access to unpublished evidence) is:
- what caused the casualties (although the UN inspectors should be able to confirm this when their report is published);
- if it was a chemical agent, who released it and how did it come to be released.
Possible Explanations for Chemical Agent Release
There has been much specualtion about this, here are some of the more plausible explanations as I see it that could explain why civilians might have succumbed to a chemical agent.
- Artillery shells hit a stock of non-weapons chemicals which then reacted to form a toxic cloud (perhaps sterilisation for a swimming pool, bleach based cleaning materials or similar).
- Artillery shells hit a stock of chemical weapons kept in an ammo store (so unintentional release).
- Rogue elements of the Syrian Government (i.e. not with Assad’s prior knowledge or authorisation) issued the chemical agent shells and ordered them fired.
- An inexperienced artillery logisitics officer sent the wrong ammo i.e. chemical agent delivery shells) to the guns and they were fired.
- Rebel forces captured some stocks of chemical agent shells and used them (either from ignorance, or in the deliberate knowledge that it would bring action against the Assad Government).
Should there be intervention?
I personally believe that there should be some sort of intervention to stop the civil war and provide humanitarian relief. However I also think that air strikes or taking sides in the civil war would be wrong.
I’m not alone in thinking that this would be wrong, the UK Parliament voted against it on Friday evening. The reasons that it would be wrong are:
- No matter how careful we are, we would kill civilians by accident as a result of launching air strikes.
- there is no guarantee that it would prevent more chemical strikes, nor would it guarantee an end to the civil war.
- Also it would be a declaration of war on a foreign state without a legitimate casus belli. There is no threat to those outside Syria from the actions of those engaged in the civil war (on either side).
More widely, it would just cement wider world opinion that the UK & US mindlessly blow stuff up as the only tool in our intervention armoury. I don’t think that this is true, but when you look at what we’ve done over the last ten years it pretty much fits from a media induced perspective.
Syria is showing signs of governmental collapse. It is plausible that Assad doesn’t have complete control over all the forces fighting for him. If we further degrade his command and control infrastructure then that control would weaken, potentially allowing a more unstable element to order chemical attacks. If it looked like the government forces might lose, and the hard-liners are already up for war crimes charges anyway, what have they got to lose by using the chemical agents they already have stockpiled?
As noted above, there are estimated to be over 2 million displaced people as a result of the Syrian civil war. Not to mentioned the general infrastructure damage done. Casualties are certainly in the high tens of thousands, and more people are being killed and injured every day.
However, this is a civil war. So it is outside the jurisdiction of the UN to get involved. The UN Charter is very clear that it does not get involved in internal matters within member states. This is a very deliberate position to ensure that all states are recognised as sovereign and will participate in the knowledge that the UN cannot tell them what to do in how they run themselves.
So who can deliver humanitarian assistance? Unless invited by the Syrian Government, no-one can.
That said, pragmatism rules in international situations, and it may well be that the UN Security Council could make a decision to get involved. It is even plausible that Assad might invite people in, especially if he thinks that it will keep him in power longer than the alternatives.
If peacekeepers were allowed in, then the best bet would be that the boots on the ground weren’t initially from the UK or US. The best option would likely be other arab states (where they have suitable trained and disciplined forces) and perhaps the Turkish Army and maybe the French or the Russians. What is definitely needed is a well disciplined force that understands the culture and history so that it can sensitively police a ceasefire and also protect humanitarian relief providers.
Other states, and especially the UK & US, could provide logistics support and specialist personnel in small groups. A particularly useful idea would be to provide protective equipment and specialist medical supplies and training for dealing with chemical agents. The UK in particular has reasonable stocks and expertise in this area. That would be a good way of starting our rehabilitation in the Middle East as a helper rather than an irritant.