There is a saying, too often used in interpreting international relations, that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Sometimes it proves true; often it does not.
Thirty years ago, the Afghan mujahidin were mistaken for friends of the West when they fought their country’s Soviet invaders. How lazy that assumption seems now, given all that has since happened.
Syria’s deepening crisis, and the criminal use of chemical weapons there, has created a similar dynamic and dilemma. However, the West need not risk making the same mistake and accepting the same false choices.
Begin with first principles. A chemical-weapons attack on the scale just seen in Syria must be deemed a game changer. Although possessing these weapons of mass destruction is technically not illegal, most states are parties to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria has refused to sign.
So the answer to the question: “What happens next?” cannot be: “Nothing.” Principles of international law — in particular, the emerging “responsibility to protect” doctrine and enforcement of the global ban on the use of chemical weapons — dictate that some form of military intervention must occur in order to deter others from using weapons of mass destruction, particularly against civilians.
However, which measures are appropriate and genuinely useful? What is more likely to strengthen the West’s security and what runs the risk of weakening it?
I believe that the fairest and simplest proportionate response would be to impose a no-fly zone on Syria. The proposal is particularly appropriate in the likely absence of any resolution under UN Chapter VII (“Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace”), owing to the (almost certain) cynical use by Russia and China of their veto power in the UN Security Council.
Of course, claims and counterclaims have been swirling in the aftermath of the appalling chemical-weapons attack on a rebel-controlled area east of Damascus. However, given the brutality of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, no one can doubt the lengths to which it would go to hide its guilt. The five-day delay in allowing UN chemical-weapons experts to verify the attack gave al-Assad’s government ample time to conceal incriminating evidence, allow it to degrade, or destroy it with further shelling. The US, France, and the UK are adamant that all the intelligence and eyewitness evidence points to the al-Assad government as the perpetrator of the attack.
There also is no doubt about the legitimacy of concerns about elements of the Syrian opposition. The al-Qaeda-led and Salafist extremist groups in the rebel forces, such as the al-Nusra Front, have proved to be just as vicious as the government and its allies, the Iranian-proxy Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. However, the united view of Western intelligence services is that there is no evidence that these rebel groups launched the chemical-weapons attack.
In these circumstances, a no-fly zone would not only clear the skies of Syrian warplanes and missiles, thereby reducing the scale of the slaughter; it would also show al-Assad and his supporters that he truly is vulnerable. Generals ordered to use chemical weapons would have to reckon with the prospect that the regime could, actually, fall and that they then might find themselves on trial for war crimes.