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Unanswered Questions on Syria

29/08/2013 08:57 BST | Updated 27/10/2013 09:12 GMT

The march towards military action against Syria has begun. This much is clear from the bellicose rhetoric of Western leaders, the leaks to the press about possible military strategies, and the rolling cast of experts gracing our screens to explain how strikes against Syria might work. In other words, all the familiar foundations are being laid to prepare the public for military intervention, in a political and media environment that is eerily reminiscent of the build-up to the Iraq war. Syria is of course not like Iraq in 2003, but as with that conflict, we now risk sleepwalking into military action whose purpose, justification and consequences we do not properly understand.

Everyone shares the sense of outrage at the atrocities in Syria, and many feel instinctively that something ought to be done. But such feelings do not always translate into specific policies that actually improve the situation. We should be particularly wary of this in Syria, whose civil war is complicated, increasingly regionalised, and involves many deeply unsavoury elements in the opposition as well as the government. We should therefore be demanding of our government when it claims the right or the need to use force in these circumstances. We must ask it to provide answers on some basic questions - which it has so far failed to do.

First, it must provide a meaningful indication of the evidence on which it has concluded that the Assad government was responsible for the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta. After Iraq, people will plainly not accept the idea that they should take such assessments on trust. Whilst it is highly plausible that Assad was behind the attack, it is not self-evident. As Lord Owen, a former Foreign Secretary, said today, it is not uncommon for agent provocateur attacks to be used during civil wars. There has also been disagreement between Western states and a UN inspector about the culpability for previous, smaller-scale chemical attacks in Syria. A fuller picture of the evidence is needed quickly.

At base, the government must articulate a clear policy objective and explain how it will be served by military action. The various justifications currently floating around in the press are individually quite unpersuasive and collectively confused. We are told that the aim is not regime change, nor to change the overall course of the war, nor to become sucked into the conflict. Any action will be 'narrow', 'limited', 'focused', etc. The phrase used both by David Cameron and by US officials (suggesting agreement on this formula) is that strikes will 'deter and degrade' Assad's ability to use chemical weapons. Since chemical weapons depots themselves cannot be safely targeted, this would require strikes on more general military targets.

This question then arises: are these strikes to be of such an intensity that they will materially damage the regime's war effort or not? If so, the claim not to be changing the course of the war is false and questions about what would happen if Assad became very unstable must be answered, not least because such instability could make chemical weapons stockpiles vulnerable. On the other hand, if the strikes do not much weaken Assad, they fail in their stated aim and it is hard to see what purpose they really serve.

Despite the 'deter and degrade' language used by some anonymous US officials, other anonymous US officials apparently said that strikes would be aimed at 'sending a message' to Assad and not degrading his military capabilities. This is a curious idea, however - if no real damage is done, what is the supposed content of this message?

Any justification for military strikes would have to show how they benefit Syrians in the medium to long-term, and that the benefits outweigh the potential costs. These costs range from civilian casualties to the financial cost of intervention (could the money be more usefully spent on, say, humanitarian relief for refugees?). There is also the possibility of a wild and unpredictable response from Assad. If the British government does not regard these risks as significant, it should explain why.

Finally, a serious legal justification is needed. Armed force is unlawful under international law unless it falls within one of two main exceptions: self-defence or UN Security Council authorisation. The former is inapplicable and the latter is improbable in the face of Russian opposition. That Assad has broken the law by using chemical weapons does not of itself give others the right to intervene. What, then, is the legal justification?

William Hague has referred to Kosovo as a supposed precedent for using force. This is doubtful, given that the Kosovo was widely considered unlawful at the time and states did not generally regard it as a precedent subsequently. Even the British government has argued Kosovo is an example only of a heavily circumscribed right of humanitarian intervention: where necessary to avert an impending overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe. It is difficult to see that this test would be met in Syria if the plan is to damage Assad's military capabilities somewhat but ultimately allow him to continue fighting as before.

Those who would disregard international law must acknowledge the costs in that approach. The argument that intervention is needed to enforce international law will lack credibility if the 'enforcement' itself constitutes a breach. The integrity of the framework of laws regulating war depends on reciprocity between states and some measure of good faith compliance with them. Violations of the law create precedents for other states. So a detailed justification, in which the government sets out which factors it believes give rise to the right to use force, is called for.

All of these unanswered questions need urgent answers. It would not be acceptable for the government to present its plans to Parliament and the country as a fait accompli. It must be pressed on these issues and made to be accountable to the public. If not, we should not be surprised if the mistakes of the past are repeated in Syria.