Infant corpses pulverised by military ordnance have always been part and parcel of total war. You seldom saw the photographs, but there were plenty – especially of boys and girls whose lives were ended by second world war aerial bombing. Many died in the London Blitz, while thousands more children across Europe perished during Allied raids leading up to the defeat of the Nazis.
It has been the same in almost every other post-war conflict, and especially the Iran-Iraq war. On 16 March 1988, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons to wipe out 5,000 civilians, many of them infants, in just one day. The gruesome pictures from Halabja, in southern Kurdistan, had only limited impact, however. They certainly did little to rally international opposition to a dictator who was to remain in power for a full 15 years after the atrocity.
The difference nowadays is that horrifying images showing the extremes of industrial conflict are readily available in an instant. Almost exactly a year ago, I was provided with scores from the besieged Syrian city of Houla, including one of a four-month-old baby girl whose throat had been cut by militiamen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. A week ago my contacts in the country, where I used to spend a great deal of time, sent me almost contemporaneous video film of children dying from the effects of nerve agents. Even the most sanitised were considered unpublishable to a wider audience.
David Cameron rightly referred to such footage in the House of Commons last week. He correctly pointed to it highlighting the absolute barbarity of the Assad regime, and its willingness to resort to near-genocide to maintain its grip on power. Like Saddam before him, Assad has proved himself to be the most evil kind of dictator – one who believes that the excruciatingly painful deaths of his own people are somehow justified because they enable him to remain in charge.
Yes, the latest film from the Damascus suburb of Ghouta suggests that Assad is a war criminal, and must be treated as such. But what it did not do is provide a compelling argument for unleashing further misery on the people of Syria through military action.
A hastily planned attack by the west on an imploding country will do nothing for the people it is intended to help, and will almost certainly exacerbate an already savage civil war. More than 120,000 people have died since the start of the fighting, with about two million refugees forced to flee their country.
Arab spring pro-democracy demonstrators who took to the street in 2011 are now involved in a fiendishly inter-tangled conflict. Russia, which provided most of Assad’s stockpiles of sarin nerve gas, is standing by the tyrant, along with equally unpredictable allies such as Iran and the militant Islamist group Hezbollah, who are fighting the war by proxy in Lebanon and Iraq. Elements of Assad’s opponents include al-Qaida fighters funded by wealthy Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
In Israel, arguably Assad’s greatest enemy within the rapidly heating Middle East cauldron, gas masks are selling out. Other regional players, including Jordan, are also extremely concerned about the possibility of being attacked.
Throw a few cruise missiles into the mix (quite literally, if the wishes of some of the American hawks I have been speaking to over the past few days are anything to go by) and an all-out regional war could follow – one potentially lasting for decades to come. The jargon of international diplomacy has acquired some ludicrous terms, but few beat “surgical strikes” for outright cynicism. The idea that millions of pounds worth of high explosives can be used without negative consequences is an absolute deceit.
As the gassing of the residents of Ghouta and other Damascus suburbs showed, military targets and civilian communities are invariably as one, especially in a civil war where lines of demarcation between opposing forces are blurred. Even now, Assad will be transporting his key military installations, including those used to dispatch chemical weapons, to the most built-up areas possible, around schools and residential blocks.
If a war is launched for humanitarian reasons, then surely the saving of human lives must be the priority. Of course Assad crossed the mythical “red line” long ago – the images I saw of infanticide in Houla convinced me of that – but the equally vague notion that “something has to be done” does not justify inflaming an already critical situation.
Instead, the west needs to concentrate on formally criminalising the Assad regime and turning its members into international pariahs. In the past, too much effort has been spent rehabilitating men such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, treating him as a respected trading partner in between attempts to kill him. The international criminal court (ICC) should issue proceedings against Assad immediately, with extraordinary war tribunals also initiated as a matter of urgency.
States such as Russia would be hard pressed to continue supporting an indicted criminal. Gaddafi and members of his family and inner circle were summoned to the ICC for threatening to kill their own people, Assad is actually killing his. Such inconsistencies are among the reasons why Assad was allowed to maintain a veneer of respectability as a recognised head of state for so long.
Note how America is currently accusing Assad of breaching “international norms”, rather than the law. This must change. Technical points are being made on behalf of Assad, including the fact that Syria has not signed the UN’s chemical weapons convention. This is pure pedantry about the science of killing.
The point of unified international action should be a defined objective. As the British parliament made clear in its vote against Mr Cameron’s motion for military action against Syria last week, there is no coherent strategy for dealing with Assad. The UN resolution that sanctioned military action in Libya was aimed at protecting civilian lives, yet it was soon manipulated into a concerted and highly successful plan to bring about regime change. This precedent is currently making multilateral action extremely difficult to achieve.
Moreover, some British MPs are among those who still believe that the chemical weapons charges laid against Assad have not been adequately proved. There is also evidence that the Free Syrian Army and other rebel elements have also got their hands on supplies of chemical weapons in the past.
Others point to the hypocrisy of the west, which continues to provide some of the most lethal weapons known to mankind to its political and trade allies. US-sourced white phosphorus shells – that cause severe burning right down to the bone – were used by Israeli forces against Palestinians in Gaza in 2008.
Just as significantly, newly opened CIA files also suggest that the US helped Saddam gas up to 20,000 Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war. American intelligence agents are said to have fed information to Baghdad that allowed the regime to launch strikes in the 1980s.
US forces also used white phosphorus in the assault on the Iraqi city of Falluja in November 2004.
Intervention in the domestic affairs of any sovereign country has to be consistent with international law. This applies to everyone – Arab despots and their sometime western allies, whose moral authority can be just as suspect.
There is every reason to take action over murdered children but running the risk of killing even more in a kneejerk military campaign should not be one of them.
Nabila Ramdani is a French-Arab journalist who worked extensively in Syria until the Arab Spring
• This article was amended on 10 September 2013. The original said that white phosphorus, used by Israeli forces in Gaza in 2008, was a chemical weapon. It is not classed as such by the Chemical Weapons Convention, and its use is in itself not – as the piece claimed – “in breach of all international conventions”.