The elasticity of President Obama’s ‘Red Line’ on Syria seems to be being stretched to breaking point following this week’s chemical weapons attack by Bashar Assad in a Damascus suburb, Ghouta, where up to 1,200 people, including many women and children may have died. What we all have seen on our screens is not an episode from ‘Wag the Dog’ as Assad and his chief cheer leader Putin would have us believe. In fact this is likely to have been the worst chemical attack on civilians since Saddam Hussein gassed up to 5,000 Iraqi Kurds in Halabja 25 years ago.
Fortuitously the UN has a team of chemical weapons inspectors on the ground 15 minutes away from yesterday’s attack. So if President Assad has nothing to hide why are he and Putin thru the auspices of the UN Security Council blocking this team of experts from visiting the site? Time is critical as many nerve agents such as sarin only linger in the body for a relatively short period of time.
The question is what do we do now? Well I suspect President Obama didn’t take the same negotiation course as me at Harvard with the late Professor Roger Fisher. He would know in negotiation never to bluff or make idle threats. A Red Line should mean a Red Line. After 14 chemical attacks since the Red Line was drawn, Bashar Assad has realised that the threat from the President of the United States is in fact an idle threat which he can ignore with impunity. As Senator McCain tweeted: “No consequences for Assad using chemical weapons and crossing red line – we shouldn’t be surprised he’s using them again.”
The US working with their partners in the UK and France must put maximum pressure on Russia in order to get a mandate from the UN to immediately allow the UN inspectors in situ in Damascus into Ghouta to inspect the bodies and site themselves. There must also be a strong message to Lavrov that all options now are open for the West to prevent a humanitarian disaster on top of the 100,000 deaths Assad is already responsible for. This means both telling Assad that he personally will be brought before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in addition to letting him know the West will now consider the potential use of force on Syria’s missile sites and airforce. A short sharp aerial campaign (which I fully appreciate is not currently supported by either the military or public at large) would quickly bring Assad to the negotiating table. At the end of the day there will have to be a negotiated settlement to end this civil war and we must pursue every means possible to bring all parties to the negotiating table. It’s time we used a little less carrot and a little more stick to end the tragedy that we continue to see unfolding in Syria.
Brooks Newmark is the Conservative MP for Braintree.