How Should We Be Thinking About the Red Line Crisis?

How Should We Be Thinking About the Red Line Crisis?

Paul Merkley

The Bayview Review, Sept. 6, 2013


The Armageddon Question


It was bound to happen eventually. As the world contemplates the escalation of the civil war in Syrian and studies the implications of all those demonic elements that have raised their flags within Syria’s borders and are announcing their plans for at last accomplishing what the Prophet long ago declared to be Allah’s ultimate mandate for mankind, significant bits of Biblical vocabulary about How It All Ends have begun to slip from the lips of our proudly secularist statesmen.


Responding to a warning from one of his own veteran Tory Members that the tough language he is using about Assad’s use of chemical weapons could “create Armageddon,” Prime Minister David Cameron suggested: “In a way you have put the Armageddon question round the other way … If no action is taken following President Obama’s red line and if no  action is taken following this appalling use of chemical weapons,  you have to ask yourself what sort of Armageddon are the Syrian people going to be facing.”


I would suggest that the senior Tory MP has at least a partial grasp of the meaning of the word “Armageddon” and the Prime Minister does not grasp it at all.  David Cameron speaks of a limited catastrophe affecting large numbers of innocent people, whereas the Senior Tory MP, while off the mark in suggesting that we have it in our power to “create” Armageddon,”  does use the term in its contextual meaning: the great global war that marks the beginning of the end of everything. [“Syrians face ‘Armageddon’  without military action, says  David Cameron,”, September 4, 2013.]


This weekend, most people in our part of the world will give this present crisis as much attention, and no more, as it gives nowadays to other confusing crises figuring in the headlines. There are major sports events to be watched and God-only-knows how many new sitcoms to be discovered. There are new blockbuster movies to be viewed – leaving no time to wallow in reality. Many of the new movies, are about ultimate global catastrophes; but these are more interesting than the news, as the agents of disaster in the movie will be gigantic natural forces abetted by long-deceased pre-historic species of monsters resurrected from fossil remains by mad scientists (assisted by aliens.)

Background to the Present Red Line Crisis


When the “Arab Spring” began back in December 2011 with the spark of massive protest in Tunisia, that spread to  Algeria, to Morocco, to Sudan, to Egypt, to Yemen, to Jordan even to Bahrain, the consensus among Middle East commentators was that, of all the Arab regimes,  the one most likely to stay intact was that of Bashir al-Assad of Syria. The thinking here was that Syria had the most professional armed forces and that these were bound in extraordinary loyalty to their President by the fact that they were mainly recruited from a closely-bound sectarian minority called the Alawites. The Alawites, who derive from a branch of Shia Islam but are regarded by both Shiites and Sunnis as defectors from Islam (the worst kind of heretics), knew that they would  face the long pent-up rage of both Sunnis and Shiites should they ever relax their grip on power. This is sufficient explanation for the astonishing ruthlessness of Assad’s army and of the Shabiha, Assad’s all-Alawite version of Hitler’s Waffen-SS.


Popular insurrection against the regime started up rather later in Syria than in most places, but by the time it had became an irresistible force the dictator, Bashar al-Assad, had the recent history of Tunisia and Libya and Egypt to contemplate. From this history he drew the lesson that it would be foolish to quit under promise of quiet exile or retirement (as Mubarak did) or that democratic method would save Syria (as our leaders believed that it would save Egypt.) Western powers had already drawn from their  experience of intervention in Libya, the conclusion that political mayhem could not be halted by judicious application of political influence to the white hat side in an Arab  civil war.


Syria’s own recent history seem to provide the lesson that popular discontent is always manageable, if the ruler is ruthless enough. Most encouraging for Assad was an incident that had gone by without ever appearing on the front page of any major newspaper in the West in February, 1982.  This was the two-week campaign of massacre. by Hafez al-Assad’s military of at least 20,000 mainly Sunni civilians in the city of Hama who had dared to go into the streets in non-violent protest. The expert wisdom was that memory of that event was strong enough that no one in Syria would ever try that again. Thus, as public protest against the tyrant Assad spread throughout the land during 2012, it had to be significant that Hama was again, as thirty years ago, in the front ranks of this dangerous resistance.


By now, the Syrian conflict has exceeded all the others in all categories of loss. About 100,000 have been killed and six million made refugees (either internally or externally.) A large part of its Army defected fairly early on and formed the Free Syrian Army. Some long-serving political figures also defected fairly early, in order to participate in a Free Syrian government-in-exile in Turkey.

Escalation of the Possible Costs of Intervention.


Those (like myself) who said out loud in mid-2012 that Assad’s regime was doomed [“Iran’s Campaign to mobilize support for Assad’s doomed regime,” The Bayview Review, September 6, 2012.] need not, I believe, recant, but we do need to admit that the deathwatch has been prolonged beyond expectations. All efforts at diplomatic solution have failed. UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan was humiliated by Assad’s unresponsiveness, as was a delegation sent by the Arab League in early 2013. A collective response either of diplomatic or military character has been thwarted by the exercise of veto in the Security Council by both China and Russia. As each effort at a negotiated conclusion has been tried and failed the cost of failure has increased. And, more significantly, the risks of proceeding to more robust action have also increased – exponentially.


Until these last few days, the President of the United States and other Western leaders were relieved by knowledge that any policy more red-blooded than that of wringing hands and talking piously about suffering does not have broad support with the public and will therefore not have to be tried. That may still prove to be the case.


All proposals for our military to intervene and rescue the people of Syria have so far been stymied by the generally-acknowledged fact that no one of the elements now playing a major role in the crisis has both competence in government and commitment to the principles that are necessary for democratic method. None of them is committed to basic freedoms, including religious freedom. Not incidentally: all of them blame Syria’s troubles on the Zionists. All of them promise a more vigorous pursuit of war to the death against the Jews than was on offer from the Assad regime, a regime that was sleeplessly invested in support of terrorists organizations and dedicated to the eradication of Israel and the liquidation of the Jews.


Most sensible people concluded long ago that our interests are best served for the near future at least by deadlock among the several internal forces. The vacuum of authority that has developed in Syria as the domain of the government of Assad shrinks has made it possible for all of the Islamist groups to set up their tents and raise their flags and start developing mini-states, governed by gangs – as in Somalia.  These gangs all hate each other more than they hate us. Some of this mutual hatred follows from the Sunni/Shia split, going on for fourteen hundred years, some follows from recent history – as for example the three-way feud among ethnic Turks, Arabs and Kurds.


We do not have a dog in this race any more than we do in Egypt’s internal  politics. There is no such thing as an Arab democracy; there has never been a peaceful Arab kingdom or republic based on consent of the government and nurtured by respect for the freedoms that are all engrossed in UN charters.  Efforts to change this equation by intervention make things worse. Our salvation must lie in containment.


The Significance of the Red Line


Ironically, it was not until it became clear, just a matter of weeks ago,  that Assad might, against all expectations,  be regaining ground, and that there was a prospect of his imposing a peace (the peace of the grave)  upon the land, that we began to notice that our own security interests came into play. This is, I believe, the most efficient way of expressing the meaning of the concept of a RED LINE. By introducing chemical and perhaps other WMD Assad has brought into play weapons whose only real value is in killing masses of unarmed people; armies, after all, can be protected by gas masks or sheltered in large dedicated facilities. These are the weapons that rogue regimes, regimes that do not even in words recognize a rule of law in world affairs,  will depend upon to level the playing field when and if they decide it is time to punish us.


In  1925, the League of Nations called upon its members to sign a “Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous, or other Gases, and of Biological Methods of Warfare. This convention, like other grandiose gestures intended to compel lawful behaviour upon dictators, was mocked by the Italians, the Japanese and the Germans – all of whom walked out of the League over the next few years rather than comply with declarations of that body which hindered their plans for greater empire.


Closing the Circle: Realism and Idealism in Convergence


An honest verdict on the performance of the United Nations as the Parliament of Mankind would have to be every bit a negative as that on the League. The UN’s “peacekeeping”  exercises almost always fail and unusually end up being hindrances to peace. And so today it has fallen  to the President  of the United States to call upon “the world” to fulfill its duty under these almost ninety-year old treaties. This situation has come about because the United Nations, which holds these treaties in trust for mankind refuses to acknowledge any such responsibility.  The bottom line is that the UN’s right to act is invested in the Security Council, where China and Russia exercise their veto power against all useful action.


Inherent in this most recent development is an intriguing and paradoxical turn of logic. Obama’s belated discovery of America’s “national security interest” in this oncoming scenario follows from his reckoning that Americans like everybody else on earth will suffer if these weapons get put to use in this conflict – a conflict that has hitherto seemed to be “local”.  For as long as I have been a student and a teacher of American History, there has been a conventional idea among academics that advocates of foreign  policy action – both the politicians and the academics –  fall into either the “idealist” or the “realist” camp. The first camp essentially coincides with the “universalists” and the second with “unilateralists”. The logic is that practitioners of American foreign policy are inclined either to  advocate unilateral action, depending on the goodness of American purposes for rationalization – or they argue for policies that they say are necessary outcomes of the responsibilities that Americans have as citizens of the world, as human beings for whom patriotism is secondary. But this has never been a clear dichotomy  – as this present episode dramatically reveals.


There seems little prospect today of the United States putting together a Coalition of the Willing for the task that it proposes; and there is no chance whatever of a mandate from the Parliament of Mankind. Paradoxically, this seems to leave the US with the self-imposed mandate of  upholding a commitment made by the League of Nations, nearly ninety years ago, and never rescinded, but likewise never honoured. As the United States does so, its is being chastised by the Secretary –General of the UN and it is  being denounced as a rogue-unilateralist  by UN Security Council members (China and Russia) who are preventing it international action. In fact, just today (September 6) the Russian President told the G20 conference meeting in St. Petersburg that “the U.S. decision will drive another nail into the coffin of international law.” The positive aspect – you might even call it the refreshing part of this – is that we have  at last  reached the point where we can speak frankly of our own self-defense – our own national defense. Everything depends on our recognizing that although this threat is not yet upon us it is over the hill.  These weapons, once distributed to the arsenals of rogue nations and Islamist gangs, are capable of reducing geographical distance to irrelevance and rendering irrelevant the massive military advantage of mighty nations.


We are compelled (ironically) by this demonstration of a great humanitarian crisis that does not affect us YET to take action clearly called for to defend ourselves. Here the cause of mankind (“righteousness”) and our own self-interest (“peace”) have (as the Psalmist says “kissed each other.”