Can we just walk on by?
I am not offered a column in the local press so each week I publish my own “Kev’s Column” online.
This week I discuss the situation in Syria:
There are times when an image just causes me to stop for a moment and consider what it shows.
On the Paignton in Pictures Facebook site there is a photo of a train leaving the station carrying troops heading for the front in 1914. Lots of local men in their uniforms all smiling and cheering as the train goes over the level crossing on Torbay Road heading off to fight “the Hun” who had invaded Belgium which Britain had pledged to protect 84 years earlier.
Seeing it now, knowning what horrors awaited them and millions of others at the Somme, Ypres and Paaschendale it seems a ghostly and sad irony to see such high spirits. Yet at the time the only memory of war was of the Boer War and imperial conflicts that had been limited in scale. The grim reality of warfare and death on an industrial scale was yet to be experienced.
I sometimes wonder what my predecessor was thinking 100 years ago today when all this was only a few years away. The sun would have shone on the sea in the same way as it does now and even at the height of the war the beauty of the bay would have seemed like a million miles away from the slaughter of the trenches.
There are two things that for many symbolise the brutality of World War I more than anything else. The sight of young men going “Over The Top” and the use of poison gas, it produced a fear that was not matched by any other weapon.
This week the media has been filled with the horrendous reality of the modern day versions of the weapons that first brought death and agony to the western front. The scenes from Syria are appalling, yet this is not just another massacre to add to the list from years of death and destruction in what has become a total war. The use of chemical weapons crosses a line.
We cannot allow a government to believe it can get away with using such weapons against its own people, whilst the world merely watches on its TV screens. This is not an act of war, it is an act of murder. Those responsible should face trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Court, yet sadly an indictment is not going to stop them doing this again. If the use of poison gas becomes “acceptable” then it opens the door to further horrors in a war that has already produced far too many of them.
The ideal scenario would be a co-ordinated response via the UN, yet it is clear that Russia and China are wedded to blocking any decisive action against Assad. Their votes against the Security Council condemning the attack are a sign they will not support any effort to remove Assad from power or look at transition for Syria. It is worth remembering two years ago when Syria stood on the edge of the abyss that Russia blocked a resolution that might have helped stem the rush to bloodshed.
I view supplying weapons to the opposition as a non-starter which could have lethal consequences in the future. In the 1980’s supplying weapons to those fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan seemed a good idea to the CIA. One of the people they supplied was Osama Bin Laden. Putting high tech weaponry in the hands of a disparate and non-cohesive group of rebel factions would literally be putting petrol on the fire.
The experience of Iraq in 2003 and the drawn out engagement in Afghanistan rightly makes us all very wary of any further interventions. An Iraq style invasion, or sending in troops to support the fight against Assad, is not going to happen, not least because it would have huge repercussions given Syria’s alliance with Russia. It would also be impossible to work out exactly who we should be fighting for or with given the fragmented situation on the ground.
That said can we really walk on by whilst a government uses chemical weapons? Can we just switch off the TV when we see children gasping for breath having been gassed and say “None of my business”? The irony is the war in Iraq was, in theory, based on Saddam having chemical weapons, yet now they are actually being used what should we do?
The first step is to be clear that the UN inspectors already in the country must be allowed to visit the site of the claimed attack. The Syrian Government claim it was the rebels faking it as an attack from the government, if so they will have nothing to fear from allowing an independent investigation. Their refusal to allow such an investigation speaks volumes about how sincere those denials are against the weight of evidence pointing in the other direction. Establishing as many facts as possible is the first key step.
Sadly it is likely that Assad will ignore the requests for an effective investigation on the ground, his only concern is staying in power at all costs no matter what misery this means for others. The international community needs to be firm that if the evidence confirms the use of chemical weapons his Government has crossed a line and clear consequences will follow, including the potential for some use of force, as they would if anyone else used such weapons.
If not we open the door to the type of warfare those troops who left Paignton Station in 1914 saw when poison gas became an “acceptable” part of trench warfare in World War I. If we just walk on by or try to ignore it history tells us this type of contagion has a nasty habit of spreading.