The recent escalation of tensions in Syria with the alleged use of chemical weapons against the civilian population is a cause of concern for the international community. These attacks allegedly took place in the east and south-west of Damascus on Wednesday, purportedly killing hundreds. There is, of course, one problem. Both sides claim the other did it. Syrian state television has been quick off the mark in suggesting evidence of rebel activity using chemical reserves. Ditto the rebels, who see their great Satan incarnate in the form of Assad.
The war in Syria has become a battleground as much for Syrian factions split between Sunni and Shia as between various countries who see an interest in either overthrowing the regime of Assad, or finding a replacement more amenable to the “West”. This has been the tragic lot of countries who find themselves on historical highways, routes where armies of various beliefs and faiths have traversed. Their sovereignty tends to be at the mercy of movement and intervention.
The conflict now has numerous names in what is becoming a line dance of murderous calculation. Russia and Iran, with their specific naval and military interests, provide the regime with support. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have made no secret of their backing of anti-Assad forces. One form of Sunni fundamentalism finds itself in a tussle with what amounts to secular despotism and Shia-backed fanaticism.
The argument for regime change, given that the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Australia, is much stranger than it seems. The al-Nusra Brigade, a mortal enemy of Assad, has been deemed a terrorist organisation on the books of those who would prefer to deal with more palatable opponents of Assad. It is not the only one. Weapons supplied for the Syrian opposition have wound their way to so called “illegal” groups, rather than moderate elements. An armed solution would be a catastrophic one.
The Australian case is a pressing one, because it suggests that a military intervention against the Assad regime might be imminent. A way of gauging imminent intervention by the United States is to watch how rapidly their allies jump to attention. It might come in the form of a certain remark by the British foreign secretary William Hague, who is already convinced that chemical weapons were, in fact, used. Or it might come in the form of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s jerky response in returning to Canberra for security briefings on the subject.
The signs are those of war, though Rudd, so far, has suggested that the UN weapons inspectors will need to ascertain what happened on the ground. Other countries have also suggested that this is the wise course of action. The longer this investigation is delayed, the less likely evidence will be found.
An empirical approach is required as to whether chemical weapons were used, and by whom. It was precisely that which proved conspicuously absent when it came to finding “evidence” of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. War is undesirable; war by fraud, even more so.
The history of interventions in such countries as Afghanistan and Iraq show the dangers of bloody and destabilising adventurism. Australian commitments to such adventures, often at the expense of international law, have proven costly and extensive. The global refugee problem is due, in no small part, to such incursions.
The sanctity of Parliament has been overridden by executive fiat at various stages of Australian history. To a large extent, this is the condition of the Westminster system: an executive which stems from Parliament itself tends to rush matters through without much regard of the public and its representatives. This, sadly, has assumed the air of bipartisan support. It is a feature of politics that must change.
In the final analysis, there are few humanitarian solutions to humanitarian crisis, certainly at the end of the gun.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and is running with Julian Assange for the Australian Senate in Victoria. Email: email@example.com