In criminal justice it is well understood that swiftness and certainty of punishment is more important than severity. Our strategy in Syria is giving us the worst of all worlds: swift but unpredictable and severe but counterproductive we are making the world and Syria more dangerous.
While lots of people are scared of another Iraq, the prospect seems to be receding. Cameron is taking a resolution to the UN with wording similar to that in UNSC 1973, authorising all necessary means to protect civilians, but the will to war doesn’t seem so strong as in 2003. Famous last words, as they say.
Instead Cameron, Hollande and Obama are all emphasising that it is necessary, perhaps sufficient, to strike hard and decisively to punish Assad to prevent future chemical weapons attacks. Even if this has little effect on the Syrian civil war itself it will underline the red line around chemical weapons use in this, and other conflicts. The argument is weak and sounds as though it’s been cobbled together in a hope it sounds coherent to justify a policy their gut feels is right.
Hundreds of people were killed last week in Ghouta by chemical weapons. It is too hard to say whether they were deployed with Assad’s direct say so but it looks very likely they were deployed by the government. It could have been a rogue commander or something more cynical ordered by Assad himself. The public still don’t know for certain, the UN have not officially reported, but Obama, Hollande and Cameron seem convinced. They may be party to incontrovertible evidence, but we have not seen it. In fact, from what we’ve seen the case for extraordinary action doesn’t seem strong enough, given the potential downsides.
Ghouta is the most deadly gas attack of the Syrian civil war, but it’s probably not the only one. There have allegedly been ghastly gas attacks going back to at least 2012, some of which may have been perpetrated by rebel forces. If we have seen “just” another gas attack, the red line crossed must be very wide. Beyond Syria and looking back a few years, we see other, presumably lesser, chemical weapons being deployed without warranting death from above. The argument that Assad requires punishment, hard, certain and now is not very strong as a deterrent. I want him punished too, but not at all costs. White Phosphorus has been deployed by Israel in Gaza and by the US in Iraq. It may be that White Phosphorus is a lesser chemical weapon.
But that just leads us to the question: what’s so special about chemical weapons? They are horrific, but so is war. If we’re drawing arbitrary red lines around weapons of mass destruction, one that surrounds Ghouta, Halabja and Hiroshima isn’t logically more coherent than one which includes Gaza, Faluja and Nagasaki. It’s killing that’s terrible, a red line that includes Tahrir Square and the Pearl Roundabout would be better than one targeting some states targeting some citizens with some classes of weapons.
This is a roundabout way of saying that a limited and punitive intervention won’t work on it’s own terms.
If it punishes Assad enough to tip the balance of power definitely away from him he will become more desperate and may become more brutal in his campaign. He may eschew chemical weapons, but it doesn’t mean civilian casualties won’t escalate. If it punishes Assad enough other states may look at their chemical weapons stockpiles and think: “what are my chances?” A rational actor would certainly revise their strategy, but they wouldn’t necessarily presume they can never use chemical weapons. Simply that they need to keep the UN further away; or ensure a higher kill rate to minimise witnesses; or keep its usage to small doses to maintain deniability; or to use one class of chemicals but dispose of the sarin; or… and so on.
A rules based international realm is a safer one, predictability and boredom are excellent things for humanity to aspire to. The reaction to the Ghouta massacre shows that our leaders aren’t heartless, but it also shows they aren’t governed by rules. In criminal justice the certainty of punishment matters more than its severity, if the international community want to set a precedent it’s too late. Firing cruise missiles at the bad guy feels like a just, rules based strategy, but it is not.
In criminal justice ensuring that punishment follows swiftly and predictably after a crime is more effective than sporadic but severe punishments. Swift doesn’t necessarily have to mean immediate, just without unnecessary delay. We are getting all of this wrong. The middle of a civil war is not the best time to mete out “precision” justice or “surgical” slaps on the risk. The logic behind the imperative to punish war crimes is a sound one, but the execution has been abysmal and won’t have the desired consequences.
Finally: Chris makes the good point that there are people in a better position to make this call than me, I’ve references this above. I don’t have enough information on what’s happening in Syria, what happened in Ghouta, what might happen if we bomb this or that to come to a truly an informed opinion. Three things make me disbelieve our leaders. One, my anti-authoritarian streak. Two, the paucity and inconsistency of the arguments that have been made, as I’ve described above. Three, I just don’t trust them anymore. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, I, uh, won’t get fooled again.
And another thing: I’m aware the Russians and Iranians and Hezbollah et al are intervening there even if the west is not. I see that as evidence we should not enter a quagmire as much as I see it as evidence we should.
One more thing: I haven’t spoken about mission creep or the temptation of committing ground troops or the potential civilian casualties of any western punishment of Assad, or my favoured alternative; supporting refugees, because this isn’t the place. I suppose I will get to each of those if and when necessary.