- by Alice Froude
This summer one piece of international news that has dominated our screens was the use of chemical weapons in Syria. This ongoing, and now international issue has preoccupied some of the world’s most powerful leaders. We have seen Obama go from pursuing imminent military action to diplomatic discussions with Putin. We have seen Cameron defeated by the House of Commons in joining Obama with military intervention in Syria. We have seen Putin support President Assad by providing weapons to his troops, and push Obama into avoiding the use of missiles by pressuring Assad to destroy any chemical weapons in Syria.
The Syrian conflict began in March 2011 when a group of schoolchildren were arrested after openly objecting to President Assad’s government. Protestors fought for the children to be released. At the protests, Assad’s troops open fired killing four people, triggering a series of violent acts that escalated into a vast internal conflict.
Rebels demanded that Assad resign after his violent reaction to protestors. He refused, causing a sharp divide between a number of people in Syria. By July 2012 the conflict was considered a civil war due to the level of violence and disruption.
According to the BBC, there is not one group of united rebels, and yet Assad’s troops have not managed to overrule or contain the violence of varied rebel groups. There are no signs that the fighting is coming to an end.
The United States and United Kingdom remained uninvolved in the conflict until August 2013 when it was reported that Assad had used chemical weapons to attack rebel protestors, proving to have devastating results on civilians. President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron suggested that the US and UK had a responsibility to intervene under international laws against the use of chemical weapons.
Prime Minister Putin suggested that Obama should pressure Assad to destroy all chemical weapons in Syria to prevent US military intervention. Discussions of how to react to the civil war continue.
We have asked Professor Scott Lucas, and two ACS students, Beth and Lucy, to reflect on these events.
Do you think Obama and Cameron had the right to want to intervene in the Syrian conflict under international laws regarding chemical weapons?
Beth: I don’t know what they would achieve by doing it. More innocent people would be killed, which is exactly what is happening at the moment. I think it could look like a competition with Putin and his allies rather than a concern for the use of chemical weapons.
Lucy: I think they had the right to bring the issue forward and to suggest that intervention could be an option. I don’t think that this is how Cameron and Obama went about it. Although it went to vote, they were both very forward about their personal intention to interfere with the Syrian Civil War.
Scott: The “right to intervene” is now an important grey area in international law. In this case, Syria was not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, so could not be held accountable. Until a few years ago, there was no way to justify this on a wider basis, but now there are some who claim that “responsibility to protect” populations means intervention can be upheld — even without a United Nations Security Council resolution. In that case, I think it is politics and humanitarian issues, rather than the law, which will shape this. Will intervention save many thousands of lives, for example, with a “protected zone” and support of insurgents to defend it?
Is it the international community’s responsibility to enforce international laws on internal conflicts?
Beth: Yes I think it is. If it wasn’t their responsibility then it would be impossible for other countries to intervene even if the most horrific human rights abuses were being made. International laws help protect innocent people from unthinkable violence, such as the use of chemical weapons. If a country or government did use such weapons, then the international community should be able to make a choice as to whether or not they should intervene.
Lucy: If I try to imagine what it would feel like to be in England with chemical attacks and in the midst of a violent civil war, I would hope that the international community would interfere and at least attempt to help innocent civilians. So yes, the international community has the right to intervene in internal conflicts if the government or rebel armies are breaking international laws.
What do you think about the fact that the news on Syria is far less prominent in the media when the British and American governments are not prioritizing the politics of “how to/whether to intervene”?
Scott: I think it is regrettable but unsurprising — at least until recent years — because of the dominance of US and UK media.
There are almost no Western reporters on the ground in Syria, because the conflict has become too dangerous for journalists to cover it locally. So traditional media outlets have experienced problems with getting information about what is actually happening on the ground.
Most UK and US media outlets take their daily coverage of Syria from the two biggest wire agencies — Reuters and the Associated Press. These agencies have relied on an organization called the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) for information on events in Syria. However, SOHR is unreliable — for example, it is run by one person based in the UK, not Syria; and it is very opaque about its sources and about who funds it.
So most English-language news on what is happening on the ground in Syria ends up coming from a single source. The situation has changed now, however, with non-US/UK outlets like Al Jazeera who devote more time to coverage of Syria. There are also networks of local citizen journalists and media activists on the ground in Syria, who use non-traditional methods — such as social media and video — to get news out of the country.
New, electronic-based media like EA WorldView are able to use these sources, whereas the larger, traditional news outlets have lagged behind. The big problem now is getting reliable sources to establish the political and military developments inside the country.
Beth: I think that now that we know at least some of what is going on in Syria it would be difficult to report on consistently, especially when we as a country are no longer involved, nor are we going to be in the imminent future. However, more accessible and comprehensible updates should be available and I believe that they are very important.
Lucy: I think this is consistent with all news. It is the same as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. People died everyday, yet it wasn’t consistently “breaking news.” One day the headline is about a serious economic crisis and the next it is a football transfer. There isn’t any real consistency so although I think it is wrong, it doesn’t surprise me.
Do you think Obama will be successful in making agreements with President Assad to remove chemical weapons from Syria?
Scott: The international community may get the removal of chemical weapons, but that is a sideshow. (See http://eaworldview.com/2013/09/syria-audio-analysis-chemical-weapons-deal-is-meaningless-sideshow/). The Assad regime will continue to press its military campaign through deadly conventional weapons, including missiles, rockets, bombs, and mortars.
Beth: I would really like to think so, but in reality I can’t see that happening in the imminent future. Especially because Putin is involved in this agreement. I think Putin will abuse and manipulate Obama’s position in this situation to his own benefit, and removing Assad’s weapons would not be in Putin’s interest.
Lucy: I think that progress will be made, but I am not convinced that all chemical weapons will be removed. I think there are solutions to this civil war, but I don’t think removing the illegal weapons are it.
Russia remains one of President Assad’s closer allies, but a con?ict between Russia and the US over this civil war is extremely unlikely. What do you think about Russia’s position in the Syrian Civil War?
Scott: I think Russia has been cold-blooded and clever including in how it has managed the situation following the August 21 chemical weapons attacks. See http://eaworldview.com/2013/09/syria-analysis-moscows-dual-strategy-of-disinformation-stalling/.
Beth: To be honest I don’t really understand why Putin is so certain on keeping Syria as an ally. If it is because of natural resources then maybe Putin is concerned that if he stopped supporting Syria, he would lose other resources from neighboring countries. I think that Putin will try and keep the US from interfering with military action to prevent their own ally from suffering and losing the war.
Lucy: I think that if Russia turned Syria away then perhaps other allies of Russia will question why they have turned away because of a disagreement with US. It wouldn’t appear powerful or loyal, and so other countries may question their own ally with Russia.
What do you think about Putin and Obama’s discussions (that have been reflected in the media) regarding the conflict?
Lucy: The media have reflected the discussions as petty. It doesn’t seem that Syria is the priority but rather a “what’s best for us” between Obama and Putin.
Scott: I think Obama has been indecisive and cautious, suddenly changing his mind over intervention at the end of August. That gave Russia, including Putin — who had been on the defensive because of the chemical weapons attacks and Moscow’s support for Assad — to seize the initiative and push Obama around on
the international stage.
Why do you think countries that neighbor Syria haven’t intervened in the conflict (apart from offering refuge to those who have fled from the civil war)?
Scott: In fact, neighbouring countries have been involved since soon after the start of the conflict in March 2011. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and — to a more limited degree — Jordan have been involved in supplying weapons to the insurgents or helping with delivery routes. Jordan’s attitude toward the conflict has changed as the crisis in Syria has continued and intensified. Before the beginning 2013, Jordan’s policy was one of trying to contain the threat of spillover. However, in the first months of 2013, Jordan — concerned that extremist Islamists were becoming stronger in Syria and fearing the affect that this could have at home — agreed to allow its territory to be used as a conduit to transfer weapons from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States to insurgents in Syria.Russia and Iran have provided military equipment and training to the Assad regime, and the Lebanese organisation Hezbollah has sent fighters to Syria to fight alongside Assad’s troops in key areas.
Beth: Maybe because they don’t have the weapons or a military that is powerful enough to truly support and intervene with either side. But Jordan has offered a lot of help to refugees, and other countries have offered some weapons.
Also, some of the countries will be preoccupied with their own internal con?icts and issues, and wont have the power nor the time to intervene in the Syrian Civil War.
Lucy: They probably don’t have the means that is required to become involved in such a serious conflict. I think they have offered far more help than Russia or the US in just offering refuge. It is more than the West or Russia has done.
Thank you to Professor Scott Lucas and our ACS Students for participating in ‘Q&A: Syria’. You can sign up to Prof. Scott’s website, EA World View, for weekly briefs on current world-wide news.