It is not enough for the west to punish Syria's use of chemical weapons alone

The stance taken by the US and the UK fails those vulnerable to 'conventional' slaughter and emboldens murderous regimes present and future.

It appears that, belatedly, the US, UK, France and their allies have concluded that a limited military attack on Syria is necessary to punish what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the "moral obscenity" of Assad’s chemical weapons attack in Ghouta last week. Already western policy-makers are making the case for action that does not require explicit UN authorisation, causing predictable anguish for many who will see yet another dangerous, unilateral intervention. But the true danger, for those whose anguish is measured not in column inches or Newsnight debates, but in mortal danger, lies not in bypassing the moribund and morally-flawed UN Security Council, but in framing the justification for action so narrowly.

This intervention will be spun by our leaders as an act of moral strength, but this is only half true. Kerry's powerful, heartfelt entreaty that "the cause of our common humanity" requires "accountability" for the use of chemical weapons, could mask a devastating corollary: that the US and broader international community will tolerate crimes against humanity carried out using conventional weapons. Our Prime Minister offers an even more narrowly defined casus belli, saying "this is not about wars in the Middle East, this is not even about Syria. It’s about the use of chemical weapons and making sure as a world we deter their use." This fails those vulnerable to 'conventional' slaughter and emboldens evil regimes present and future, which might now calculate that 100,000 'conventional' deaths will be tolerated, especially if they have a UNSC ally, yet 1,000 WMD deaths will be punished.

Another problem concerns the apparent Damascene conversion of William Hague and his counterparts to the view that, as many proponents of intervention have long argued, it is "possible to respond to chemical weapons without complete unity on the UN Security Council...to take action based on great humanitarian need and humanitarian crisis". Hague’s volte-face on the fallacy of equating UNSC authorisation or lack thereof with moral rectitude is not the problem. It is that this newly ethical and assertive approach to international law is to be reserved exclusively for what he terms chemical weapons "outrages". On the surface we see moral strength in waiving a reliance on UNSC unanimity to pursue a clear ethical approach to an egregious crime. But underneath we should see punitive, not protective action.

Since so much recent commentary has focused on the blurring of President Obama’s 'red lines', the actual enforcement of them in the coming days will obscure the far more dangerous blurring of moral lines. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s statement indicates just how little has really changed: "What we are not considering is regime change, trying to topple the Assad regime, trying to settle the civil war in Syria one way or another. That needs to be settled through a political process." We find ourselves in the bizarre position of planning military action against a regime that Kerry asserts has offended the "conscience of the world" through its wicked use of chemical weapons against its own people yet, despite this, we pledge at the outset not to seek its removal from power. This is akin to punishing an assailant for having committed a heinous murder with a gun, but leaving him free to roam so long as future killings are carried out with a machete.

People should not be lulled into the sense that the world has grown up and learned to enforce its own basic rules, the most important being "the right to life, liberty and security of person" as stated in Article 3 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The red line of the use of chemical weapons should indeed be punished severely. But our moral assertiveness must not end there. There are much bigger red puddles of blood throughout Syria and across our world, which surely outrage our "common humanity". For the sake of victims of illegitimate, un-democratic, vicious regimes, it is vital that the "conscience of the world" does not cower behind artificial red lines, and wherever possible, takes action against all crimes against humanity.

A man wears a mask and holds banners reading 'Save Syrian People now!' on August 28, 2013 outside the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Slinger is chair of Pragmatic Radicalism and blogs at Slingerblog.

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Leader: Europe and the long shadow of war

Amid the rancour, it is easy to forget what drove European integration in the first place: the two great wars in the first half of the 20th century.

Amid all the claims and counterclaims about David Cameron’s so-called renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the European Union, it is often forgotten, or conveniently ignored, just how successful the European project has been in helping to create and maintain the post-Second World War peace order.

We support continued British membership of the EU but are sceptical of the imperial ambitions of the European elites. We opposed British membership of the single currency, a decision that the eurozone crisis has vindicated. It is obvious that the Schengen Agreement is unravelling and in all likelihood is unsustainable, as embattled nation states reimpose emergency border controls and the continent grapples with its worst refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War. Like the British government, we are opposed to further political and economic integration and to the creation of a federal or quasi-federal superstate.

However, at a time of profound instability in the world, we accept that it would be foolish for the United Kingdom to retreat from our various multilateral peace alliances – whether that be membership of the EU or, indeed, Nato (as some on the left would wish) – all of which involve some kind of surrender of sovereignty.

Amid the rancour, it is easy to forget what drove European integration in the first place. The two great wars in the first half of the 20th century racked the continent, with neighbouring armies slaughtering each other on a scale that still defies comprehension. As Alistair Horne writes on page 22, “the most atrocious battle in history” began a century ago next week in Verdun, France, on the Western Front. The German army hoped to lure the enemy into a trap and then “bleed the French army white” using its superior firepower. Yet the rivers of blood flowed both ways: in ten months, over 25 square miles, pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas, 300,000 French and German soldiers died.

The lessons of the battle were not quickly learned – the carnage of the Second World War was still to come – yet ultimately they were. In 1963, France’s Charles de Gaulle, who was wounded at Verdun, signed a treaty with the then German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, binding two countries that had engaged for centuries in tit-for-tat wars in an enduring nexus of co-operation. The aim, as David Reynolds notes in his article on page 28, was “to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism”.

Two decades later, President François Mitterrand, who fought near Verdun in 1940, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whose father served there in 1916, attended a commemoration ceremony at one of the battle sites. In what became an iconic image of reconciliation at the heart of Europe, Mitterrand impulsively gripped Kohl’s hand during their national anthems. The two men were later the architects of the Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union under its current name.

These are troubling times for Europe. Confidence and optimism are low. The wars in the Middle East and the rise of Islamic State, Russian revanchism and financial and economic turbulence have dented the morale of even the most committed liberal Europhiles. In addition, the EU seems unable or unwilling to control or police its borders, just as it has been unable to bring an end to the crisis in the eurozone. Nor is it any closer to forging a common foreign policy, let alone forming a common European army that might be necessary in future years to patrol the outer edges of the continent.

“Unless the EU can find solutions to the problems Europe is facing that are acceptable to its members . . . the Union will be on a glide path to collapse,” wrote the historians Brendan Simms and Timothy Less in a recent issue of the New Statesman. And yet, for all its flaws and present difficulties, the EU remains a force for stability in the world. It embodies the liberal, rules-based order without which barbarism and war are never far away, as the centenary of the Battle of Verdun so poignantly reminds us. 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle