Some commentators are suggesting that John Kerry made an off the cuff slip, when he suggested the US would call off military strikes if the Assad regime gave up its chemical weapons stockpile, and has thus handed the advantage to the Russians. This is nonsense. First, President Obama has admitted to discussing the idea with President Putin at the G20 and, second, the reason the Russians have the advantage is that the American threat of military action is deeply unpopular everywhere among populations weary of war, including and especially in the United States itself. The American political and military leadership is out of step with majority world opinion while the Russians are walking neatly in time.
There are a multitude of tacky elements to the US position and that of the UK government, but not its parliament. No fuss was made when Saddam Hussein, then an ally of the West, used such weapons against Iran, nor when he used them again against the Kurds. There is now clear evidence that the original Aleppo chemical strike which gave rise to the red line declaration, was launched using improvised munitions and non military grade gas. This points to the rebels. Any American military action must have the inevitable effect of degrading Assad’s military infrastructure and give advantage to those who oppose him. Yet he is not America’s enemy and has not threatened the United States. On the other hand a leading element of his enemy is Al Qaeda and affiliates, perhaps the best organised and best led of all the many formations. Al Qaeda is America’s sworn enemy.
If Assad falls the so called moderate rebels are not anywhere near strong enough to control the chaos which will follow, whereas Al Qaeda and other Islamic groups almost certainly are. Thus the outcome, even if the chemicals are destroyed in the apparently ‘tiny’ missile strike, may be that the country falls into the hands of the worst enemy of all.
Outside the White House, Pentagon, Downing Street and the Elysee Palace, the rest of the world knows this and wonders at the contradictions and confusion. It also vehemently believes that no kind of bombing can be carried out without civilian casualties and cannot see how this can alleviate the suffering of the ordinary people of Syria. Nor can it guarantee the destruction of the gas, the storage of which is said to be spread among very many sites, some of which may already be in rebel hands.
As one who spent his early childhood never far from his gas mask and later survived the unpredictable bombardment of VI and VII missiles which decimated many streets in my neighbourhood, I am still able to recall just what it is like to live in a war zone. I also recall that it was widely accepted at the time that the reason the Germans did not use gas was not that they had signed a treaty, but the knowledge that if they did we would use it on them big time. It was called deterrence.
But in the end any weapon used against civilians is uncivilised and the death of a child, whether blown apart by shrapnel or suffocated by poisonous gas, is still the death of a child. Oh, and what about napalm in Viet Nam? The biggest problem which the United States faces is the way it manipulates its principles to serve its interests of the moment. It is a problem entirely of its own making and belongs to a past era. Others have moved on. There are better ways of doing things. If history tells us anything it is that killing cannot save lives.