Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bringing Syria to heel

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THE United States should not order its armed forces in the Middle East to stand down just yet, but if Syria is serious about handing over its chemical weapons, it would be the best possible outcome to the crisis.

It's possible Syria is merely stalling for time by agreeing to Russia's proposal it dismantle its arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, but the western powers must treat the offer seriously and demand an immediate plan of action.

China also supports the proposal, meaning all five permanent members of the UN Security Council are enjoying a rare moment of agreement.

Syria must show its sincerity by immediately inviting the UN to take control of its chemical stockpiles in return for an American pledge not to carry out its threatened air strikes.

Anything less could set the clock back and renew the drive for punitive action.

The use of American force was not a certainty under President Barack Obama, who is still seeking congressional approval for such action and who had not yet begun the process of establishing the legality of military action. It's possible he may have acted without any authority, at home or in the UN, but that, too, would have complicated the international order.

Without a legal basis, the American case could only have been founded on moral imperatives.

Syria's use of chemical weapons on its own people was a gross violation of humanitarian principles and of international law. It demanded a harsh response, but the hopeless dysfunction within the Security Council, which must be reformed, meant the stamp of UN approval was unlikely.

Some critics have argued the ban on chemical ordnance is both outdated and nonsensical, since bombs, bullets and artillery can cause carnage and suffering far greater than any of the poisonous gases that have been invented by military chemists.

The argument is flawed, however, because it underestimates the insidious, indiscriminate nature of chemical weapons, particularly as they affect civilians.

If the death toll from the sarin gas used in Syria was small relative to the total number killed, it was partly because it was used sparingly relative to the shells carrying high explosives.

In urban warfare, citizens can take cover from artillery, but there is nowhere to hide during a chemical attack. An artillery shell can be aimed, but poison gas drifts aimlessly, killing or maiming every person in its path.

Their random nature -- they can kill friend or foe, depending on the currents of the wind -- also makes them inefficient weapons since they can easily turn on their owners.

Syria's use of chemical weapons against its own people has tested the ability and will of civilized nations to enforce international law and uphold a minimum moral code. Unfortunately, it's a test that found western resolve wanting.

Western sabre-rattling, however, will have proved its worth if it compels President Bashar Assad to destroy his stockpiles.

A bloodless victory that eliminates Syria's weapons of mass destruction is far superior to the risks inherent in armed intervention.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 11, 2013 A8


Updated on Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 7:25 AM CDT: adds image

8:50 AM: Corrects spelling of ordnance

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