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Syria, Why The West Can't Turn Back Now

After the chemical attacks, military intervention is a question of humanity, but also of realpolitik. That does not, however, mean it will resolve the situation in Syria.

A mother and father weep over the body of their child, killed in a suspected chemical weapons attack on Damascus
A mother and father weep over the body of their child, killed in a suspected chemical weapons attack on Damascus
Laurent Joffrin*


PARIS — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s latest crime changes everything. This time, a Western intervention is not a possibility, a hazardous temptation or a more or less justified imperative. It is something obvious.

Apart from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it has been almost a century since any country has used chemical weapons in combat. An international convention bans its use, and it is one of the rare ones that is properly respected — although it bears reminding that Syria did not sign it. But can we do nothing and tolerate such an exception that contradicts all these nations’ tacit agreement?

Alongside his allies, President Barack Obama had solemnly declared that the use of gases was the red line not to cross. What would his word be worth — and democracies’ words in general — if he remained inert when the evidence of such a monstrosity is piling up? And how would we put pressure on Iran on the nuclear question if we left the use of a forbidden weapon in Damascus unpunished? Western abstention would open a highway to barbarity for all the dictators in the world. It would largely ruin the democracies’ credibility on the international scene. It is not only a question of humanity, but also of realpolitik.

A warning to tyrants

Let’s say the interventions in Iraq and in Afghanistan were unsuccessful and the operations in Libya have led to a dangerous mess. And let’s say we’re right. Each intervention is conditional, and here’s the main reason why: If the country in question cannot rapidly set up acceptable political institutions and local armed forces that guarantee public order and ensure compromises between factions, any foreign intervention, however technically perfect, is bound to fail.

In other words, any large-scale offensive, which would include the use of ground troops and bombings, involves major risks. Bringing Western armies into Syria would amount to walking around a powder keg carrying a lit torch. The civil war would also be unlikely to end, and an extended intervention would soon turn a large part of the region’s population against the Western countries.

In these circumstances, there is only one solution: issue a severe warning to this senseless and barbaric regime that gases its own people, and bring more efficient help to the non-Islamist opposition. These policies, which should have prevailed from the beginning, are now essential. They will not solve the Syrian crisis, and they will certainly not bring harmony to the region. But they will issue a salutary warning to tyrants.

*Laurent Joffrin is the editor-in-chief of Nouvel Observateur.

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