Syria gas attack: defence chief prepares 'scenarios' for action
Will Damascus prove to be a 'Srebrenica moment' when anti-interventionists realise it's time to act?
THE NEW chief of the defence staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, has revealed he is giving ministers "scenarios" for military action in Syria.
His remarks in the current edition of Defence Focus, a Ministry of Defence staff magazine, raise the challenge for the West over its response to the alleged chemical attack in Syria yesterday which has left more than 1,000 dead according to local estimates.
General Houghton said: "As it stands, no decisions have been made on our involvement in Syria. It is, nevertheless, the duty of the Ministry of Defence to provide options for the use of military force in scenarios such as Syria and military advice on the utility of those options."
The chemical attack – which the photos from local hospital suggest is genuine, and not a figment of the rebels' imagination, as the Assad regime would have it - has confronted Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague with a dilemma which could prove to be one of their toughest tests: how should the West respond?
The BBC is reporting that France has said the West must respond with force if it is proved that the Assad regime was responsible for using a chemical weapon, believed to be Sarin. But without Assad's permission for the UN inspectors to visit the site in rebel-held territory, that proof is unlikely to be forthcoming.
This morning, former Labour Foreign Minister Lord (Mark) Malloch Brown warned the Assad regime on Radio 4's Today programme it did not have a "blank cheque" to commit atrocities in the face of inaction so far by President Barack Obama and the West.
Malloch Brown said: "The analogy may be the Balkans where for a long time diplomats dug their heels in against intervention, then there were catalytic moments - what was happening in Srebrenica and Sarajevo - that swept that aside and you saw an extraordinary turn of direction led by President Clinton who until that time had been a reluctant interventionist.
"I think the Assad regime are badly misleading the West and particularly the United States if they think they somehow have a kind of blank cheque book to commit any kind of atrocity and for it to go unresponded to."
As before, the Assad regime claims the attack was carried out by the rebels themselves to discredit the Assad government. But during an official visit to Paris yesterday, Hague appeared to dismiss such nonsense, saying: "I hope this will wake up some who have supported the Assad regime, to realise its murderous and barbaric nature."
He later qualified his remarks, saying the reports of the attack were uncorroborated. But he joined international calls for the Assad regime to allow the UN weapons inspectors into the rebel-held area where the attack took place.
The world is waiting to hear whether President Obama believes the use of chemical weapons on such a wide scale is the "game changer" he warned Assad a year ago would amount to the crossing of a "red line". The big problem is Russia - which supported Assad last night in the UN by refusing to back an immediate inspection by the UN weapons inspectors.
Tory MPs have expressed alarm at the possibility of intervention in Syria ever since Cameron and Hague made belligerent noises about arming the rebels early in the conflict - until it became apparent that it could mean handing weapons to Muslim jihadists.
As James Blitz reported in the Financial Times in June: "For the last few months, David Cameron has been the most forward leaning of all western leaders in suggesting that arms should be shipped to moderate rebels fighting President Bashar al–Assad's regime in Syria. But one of the fundamental problems Mr Cameron faces is that while he is instinctively in favour of intervention, many leading figures in Britain's military and security establishment are not."
Hague's tone yesterday suggests Cameron's "instinctive" backing of an intervention might be hardening, and that Britain is pushing Obama to make his mind up soon - and do more than just ring his hands. ·