Syria in crisis - Gas outrage cannot go unanswered

We all like to believe that we live in societies that try to behave decently, ones that try to observe basic standards of humanity and justice.

Of course it is possible to point to a litany of disappointments, domestic or international, that challenge that hope but, by and large, most of us are lucky enough to live in a society that stands on the right side of the divide.

It must be accepted, though, that the West’s self-satisfied view of itself is not always recognised around the world, especially in less developed countries — and very often with considerable justification.

Because of our we-are-good assumption, we are instinctively outraged when the norms of civilised behaviour are defied as they have been by the use of chemical weapons against sections of the Syrian population. Already an angry international community has demanded a boots-on-the-ground intervention in Syria’s increasingly savage civil war. However, how that might be achieved, managed, or controlled — or most importantly of all, eventually ended — remains very much in the realm of speculation.

That intervention is urged in a region riven by the escalating Egyptian crisis, increasing anarchy in Libya, the bitter-sweet legacy of the Arab Spring, and in proximity to the Middle East’s semi-permanent time bomb, Israel, just adds to the nightmare complexity of the situation. That world powers are divided on what to do or who to support adds to that complexity.

The Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases of 1899 was broken, in spirit at least, for the first time when Germany used poison gas at the Second Battle of Ypres on April 22, 1915. Though the Allies were outraged, Britain felt free, if not obliged, to respond in kind at Loos that September. On that occasion, shifting winds meant that gas was blown back over British lines and far more Allied troops were lost than German. As a parable about the spiral of tit-for-tat atrocities, it is as good as any from WWI, which, ironically, was by far the most calamitous international intervention of modern times — one that has shaped out modern world.

That that world insists on international intervention in Syria, and the huge loss of life that might entail, in the same week it tolerates the outrage of Robert Mugabe, at 89, being sworn in again as president of Zimbabwe and the release of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak from jail is another parable about human foibles worth parsing.

None of this makes much difference to those who died after a chemical weapons attack in the Ghouta region of Damascus. Those who survived it, and those who fear they may be next, want to know what can be done to protect them from this odious form of attack. France has advocated “forceful international intervention” but that is unlikely in the short term at least. The call from Syria’s opposition that UN chemical weapons inspectors immediately investigate the area of the attack seems impossible to ignore.

Should President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters block those inspectors they will bring intervention and all the risks that entails a good deal closer and provoke an immediate escalation of the crisis.

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