Whether chemical weapons were or were not used in Syria, and who was responsible if they were, are questions to which the answers, at present, are far from being as certain as the Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister are asserting. They, of course, believe that they are uniquely placed to judge guilt or innocence without needing firm evidence, as we’ve seen on other issues recently. But one doesn’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder why the Syrian regime would choose to risk international outrage and potential further military action against itself by using such weapons in a battle which it is on the point of winning in any event, even if the war still seems to be far from over. I can accept as a fact that dictators are not necessarily bound by any considerations of logic, but that, like much of what the UK and US governments are saying, is not enough to pronounce Assad guilty.
But let us suppose that the simplest explanation of the facts that are known is also the correct one, and that Assad did order the use of some sort of chemical weapons against civilians in a rebel-held area, what should the response be? The outrage against the use of banned weapons is justifiable, although I note in passing that I struggle to understand why the method of inflicting death and injury is considered more important that the fact of inflicting them. My support for banning certain types of weapons has always been based on such bans being a step along the road to ending war, not as a means of legitimising non-banned forms of warfare, which is how governments seem to interpret it. Civilians killed by high explosives are no less dead than those killed by gas, and the tragedy of what is happening in Syria is by no means contingent on the methods being used.
It seems likely that the madman in the White House will respond by launching a further military strike against some target or other in Syria, and apparently the UK government is seriously considering taking part in any such action. But what exactly would adding further to the toll of death and destruction in Syria (which is the inevitable outcome) actually achieve? The Prime Minister said that her aim is “…to ensure those responsible are held to account”, which sounds strong and resolute, but it’s just a meaningless form of words. The likely target of any strike is an airfield or military base somewhere in Syria (preferably where there are no Russians who might become victims of such a strike), but that is more to do with killing a few government soldiers or airmen selected at random than with holding anyone to account. It assumes, seen from the perspective of those claiming that Assad has authorised the use of banned weapons, that killing a few random members of his armed forces will punish a ruthless dictator to such an extent that he will mend his ways and never do it again. That seems unlikely to me, to say the least.
I understand and share the frustration of the leaders of countries across the world at their apparent inability to bring the war in Syria to a negotiated end. But negotiated end there will have to be, eventually. In the meantime, the very least we should be doing is avoiding making a bad situation worse. Dropping more bombs on a country which is already being bombed by half a dozen air forces from around the world because we ‘have to do something’ and that’s all we can think of doesn’t look to me like the best way of helping the Syrian people, even if it didn’t run a serious risk of escalating the conflict.