The West is giving a massive demonstration of indecision and lack of purpose in the face of an atrocious war crime in Syria. Whichever side carried out an horrendous chemical attack near Damascus (and it all seems to point to the regime), it should be punished. Use of chemical weapons should be a very definite red line for all civilised nations. The painful death and wounding of so many men, women and children should provoke a firm response from the free democracies of Europe and the West.
Britain and France are the only two major European nations to make statements of intent to punish Assad’s atrocity, but Prime Minister David Cameron’s humiliating defeat in the British Parliament last week has left France’s President Hollande looking somewhat isolated in his determination to step into the breach. Germany and Italy, probably the only two others with the capability to do anything meaningful, have shrugged their shoulders and turned their backs on the issue. Cameron’s parliamentary defeat has as much to do with a fear of repeating Tony Blair’s embarrassing Iraq debacle as with his personal popularity.
The lack of purpose and decision by the West could have dire consequences in the not too far distant future and cause even more instability in the conflict-ridden Middle East. Unsurprisingly it is Israel that has immediately picked up on the consequences of the West’s indecision, because they affect her the most and include a potential increase in three existing threats.
Firstly, President Assad has threatened to retaliate against any Western attack by attacking Israel; something Iran has also threatened, in support of her ally. Unlikely as it is that either would carry through on these threats, any of the elements involved in the Syrian civil war could decide that an attack on Israel over or through the Golan Heights is a good idea. Hence the redeployment of Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defense batteries northwards and a flurry of Israelis replacing old gas masks with new models! While a punitive attack by the West could lead to any, all or none of the above, the uncertainty leaves Israel feeling vulnerable on the Golan at the same time as her Lebanese (Hizbollah) and Egyptian (Sinai terror attacks) borders are unstable.
Secondly, Damascus is only about an hour’s drive from Israel’s Northern border (not that too many people make the journey these days). Tehran is a lot further away, but the consequences for Israel of a nuclear-armed Iran are unimaginably worse than the threat of a Syrian chemical attack. The worry in the Israeli government now is this; if the West dithers over responding to a real chemical atrocity with over 1,000 innocent people dead, will the free democracies step up to the bar when Iran has nuclear-tipped missiles pointing at Israel, but hasn’t killed anyone yet? Continuing indecision over punishing President Assad (assuming the allegations are true) leaves Israel with fewer options when Iran reaches her nuclear goals and makes it more likely that Israel will carry out a unilateral pre-emptive strike.
Lastly, this lack of confidence Israel is feeling towards the West, particularly the US, impacts on the present round of peace talks with the Palestinians. The international community has pressed a number of times for an international peace-keeping force to be a part of the provision for Israel’s security in the event of a two-state solution to the conflict. Israel has rebuffed this idea on each occasion and dilly-dallying over punishing Syria reinforces the opinion of many Israeli leaders that they could not trust the West to defend them if the chips were down. In the case of a peace-keeping force on her borders with a future Palestine, this would mean ensuring that Tel Aviv or Jerusalem were not destroyed by terrorist rockets from the West Bank. That takes a lot of trust; trust which this week’s events in London, Washington and European capitals is not inspiring in Israel’s government.
As time rolls on – and as they say, “a week is along time in politics” – time is running out for any punitive measures to have their full effect. Even assuming some of the gathering warships in the Eastern Mediterranean take out Syrian regime facilities within the next few days, the message is out; the West cannot take decisive action when it’s needed. The message is through to Israel as well. Whatever the US and Europe say about being Israel’s “best friend” – when the chips are down, the button is pressed, or whatever – Israel will be on her own; as she has been for, oh, about the last sixty three years.