After 100,000 dead, and over 1,000,000 refugees, the world has finally decided to take open action against Assad. For three years now, hundreds of Syrians have been dying on a daily basis, but it took the terrible images of the aftermath of last week’s chemical strike to convince the world that it needs to intervene.
Is there such a difference between the indiscriminate killing of civilians by airstrikes or ground attacks, than that performed by Sarin gas? From an ethical aspect, there should be no difference in the way we react to these two types of attacks – both are deplorable and warrant a response. Yet there is a psychological element that makes us respond differently to the use of unconventional weaponry. The related imagery is pretty horrific – the gas itself, the means of protection (gas masks), and of course the physical effects. As a result, international norms have defined the use of gas in warfare as being “unconventional”, as if using “conventional” means to kill is morally sounder.
No. The difference is merely cosmetic. Morally speaking, there is no more reason to intervene in the Syrian conflict now than there was two weeks ago, two months ago, or two years ago. Cornered by red lines he himself put in place, President Obama is going to put on an act for the sake of appearances with no real objective in sight other than showing the world that he is as good as his word (an important objective for the Americans but not very useful for the Syrian people).
Words seem to be the only thing being exchanged right now between all the parties involved: the Western powers, together with their Arab and Turkish allies in the Middle East are screaming blue murder; the Russians and Chinese are warning of the expected calamity; the Iranians and Syrians are threatening Israel; and Israel is returning in kind, warning of dire consequences should it find itself on the receiving end of any kind of retaliation.
The growing level of bellicose rhetoric, together with the overly dramatic media reports, are the reasons we are witnessing what can only be defined as a panic attack taking place in Israel. While understandable, the throngs of Israelis flocking to receive a gas mask are not justified.
Firstly, if Assad’s regime has proven anything over the years it is that although being brutal and murderous, it is also rational. Assad will not retaliate against Israel if it means risking the regime and the Alawite community he belongs to and leads. Secondly, the wide and multi-faceted preparations the IDF is making just in case Assad does decide to attack are impressive and seem to encompass all the possible scenarios. That being said, there are no signs that Assad is preparing for any kind of retaliation against anyone. Lastly, the presence of American forces in the area means Israel is not alone, and has the backing of the strongest and most advanced military the world has ever seen (and more importantly – Assad, and his Russian and Iranian friends, know this).
The increasing velocity of the verbal exchanges between the protagonists notwithstanding, my assessment from the beginning of the week has not changed. The Americans are expected to lead a punitive strike against Assad’s regime that will be limited and risk-free in magnitude and nature. We will not be witnessing Marines tearing down Assad’s statue in Damascus any time soon. What we will be seeing are Tomahawk cruise missiles from American and British vessels hundreds of miles off the Syrian coast. This type of attack lets Obama flex his muscles while also ensuring Assad still has plenty to lose if he attacks Israel.
So before we turn this into a self-fulfilling prophecy, and tempt Assad to give us a taste of what he treated his fellow Syrians to last week, my advice is to take a deep breath and simply calm down.