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Andrew Lilico: It doesn't matter whether war in Syria would be "illegal" - we now have little choice but to act

As I've written before, I'd have preferred it if, some time ago, we had positively eschewed any involvement in the Syrian civil war.  I don't see any good guys for us to side with, and up to now I've seen no appetite for us to stay and clean up after attacking nor any national interest.

But the use of chemical weapons by Assad's regime may have changed that.

I'm very suspicious of the claims that the Assad regime has indeed used chemical weapons, for doing so seems irrational to the point of incomprehensibility.  So...Assad didn't use chemical weapons against the rebels when he was losing to them, but now that he's winning he's decided to launch chemical rocket strikes against civilians??  I can make no sense of that claim.  And of course the record of our intelligence services, in recent years, in identifying WMD issues in the Middle East has been weak.

But at the end of the day, I see no choice but to proceed by trusting the British and American governments on the point.  If we refuse to believe them now, where does that leave us?  Did men really land on the moon?  Is there really any risk of global warming?  Are those vaccines they inject us with really to make us well rather than sick?  We would abandon our political discourse to the realm of the internet conspiracy theorist.  Psychologically, I don't actually trust that the US and UK governments really 99.9% know that Assad attacked his people with chemical weapons, but practically and politically I see no choice but to proceed by entrusting myself to them on this point.

Does his using chemical weapons really change anything?  Why is it ok for him to kill tens of thousands of his citizens with bullets, but unacceptable for him to kill 1,000 with poison gas?  The chemical weapons prohibition is clearly not much more than a taboo - chemical weapons have always seemed to me the weakest members of the "WMD" pantheon.  (We even allow our Western police to use a form of "poison gas", namely tear gas.)  But, like it or not, chemical weapons are part of the WMD pantheon, and it probably is in the West's interest to defend the taboo against the use of WMD.  If we allow chemical weapons use to go unchallenged today, how shall we object to biological weapons use tomorrow?

So, trust issues acknowledged and in full cognisance of the arbitrary nature of the taboo, it does seem to me that the use of chemical weapons may well mean the West now has an interest in Syria that it didn't before.

David Cameron tries to re-assure us that he does not have "regime change" in mind.  I find that rather disturbing.  Surely the strongest argument is that, Assad having used chemical weapons, the West now has no option but to replace his regime?  Or is the idea that we shall kill some Syrians just to make the point that we disapprove of chemical weapons use, without hoping to de-throne the perpetrators?  There seems to be a thought going around that we would simply seek to respond in a way that would deter Assad (or, in the future, others) from using chemical weapons again.  But unless we are planning to respond in kind - using chemical weapons ourself (obviously unthinkable) - I can't see how that could work.  To have any real purpose, an attack on Assad would at least have to tip the balance against him in the civil war - thus bringing about regime change.  If we are doing that, given that we have no clear allies that could stay in power without our support afterwards (jihadists will not fade quietly away after Assad has done), it has surely to be us that takes over?

Russia and China are unlikely to like that idea, and almost certain to veto any UN Security Council resolution likely to be used to justify a US-UK attack.  We shall therefore face the familiar calls of those saying war in Syria would be "illegal".  That seems to me to be the least interesting objection to any war.  The UK is (or should be) a sovereign state that makes it own laws and is not subject to laws made or judged upon abroad.  A war could perhaps be illegal if, say, the Defence Secretary ordered an attack when the Prime Minister and Queen had forbidden it.  But if the internal processes of authorisation within the UK are proper, there is not some additional question of whether the law is "legal internationally".  Being "legal" or "illegal" is interesting either as a matter of natural law, of justice, or of the setting of arbitrary rules (e.g. which side of the road we drive upon).  "Positivist" law has a role in the setting of rules, but cannot (or at least should not) overturn justice.

"International law" is not like this at all.  International law is simply a set of customs and conventions for how states should interact with one another.  The UK has, of course, signed up to various treaties that include protocols for the commencement and conduct of wars.  But breaking a treaty is not "illegal" in the sense that theft or late payment of taxes is illegal.  Breaking a treaty is, instead, "rude".  That doesn't mean we should pay no heed to our treaties - it's usually bad to be rude, and it's most certainly imprudent to be rude frequently.  But it isn't "illegal" in the morally interesting sense that breaking national laws is illegal.  (To put the point in more abstract terms, one might say the moral arguments of Socrates and St Paul as to why one ought to "obey the law" do not apply to "international law", because one has not selected one's ruler oneself or sat under the protection of that divinely-appointed ruler for you - neither of those principles could apply to a world-ruler.)

So, to sum up, I regret that we did not, earlier, open up the Syrian conflict to let the Turks, Russians etc. sort it out.  And I confess myself very suspicious about the claims that Assad has used chemical weapons and in any case regard the taboo against chemical weapons as rather arbitrary.  But we are where we are.  We have no choice but to trust the US and UK governments when they say they are convinced Assad has used chemical weapons, and no real choice but to enforce the prohibition against chemical weapons use.  If we are going to intervene, we shall probably bring about regime change (claims to the contrary notwithstanding) and thus should plan for how we clean up after.  The attack will almost certainly not be supported by the UN Security Council and therefore be condemned as "illegal" by many in Britain, but that should in no way deter us.

The facts have changed, and I've changed my mind.  Now let's do it right this time.


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