Last week, opposition groups in Syria claimed that between 300 and 1,700 people were killed in a chemical weapons attack outside Damascus, crossing what US President Barack Obama has dubbed his ‘red line’. The use of chemical weapons has not yet been confirmed by UN inspectors (bringing back uncomfortable memories of the 2003 intervention in Iraq), though it now seems likely there will be some form of Western military response. The civil war in Syria has been raging for over two years now, with more than 100,000 killed and millions displaced from their homes, yet the UN Security Council is locked in a stalemate between the US, UK and France, who support intervention, and China and Russia, who oppose it and are likely to block any proposed resolution.
If a state fails to protect its citizens, either because it is unwilling or unable… it loses its right to sovereignty. How many Srebrenicas do we need to have? Unilateral military action would undermine the international order, but can political stalemate prevent us from intervening in beyond-the-pale situations like this? We need more decisive action. The least we can do is to help the opposition to defend themselves.
Earlier this year, when we interviewed Ria Oomen-Ruijten, a Dutch MEP with the European People's Party, we asked her if she agreed with Elia about intervention. At that time, the discussion was focused on the possibility of Western governments supplying weapons to the rebels, so what did she think?
I totally agree with Elia. Because, seeing that in Syria millions of people have been displaced and more than 70’000 citizens have already been killed in this war, we can’t any longer only watch [and promise them weapons] but we really have to do something. At the same time, everybody has to know that if the regime falls then we really need democratic forces which will install the rule of law and guarantee all the individual and collective rights of the citizens of Syria. And, if I look at some parts of the opposition, not everybody has the same aim. So, simply saying: ‘Now we are going to give everyone arms to get rid of the regime’ is too simple an answer. Yet, we can’t neglect what is happening any longer.
I, personally, cannot watch this anymore. I was in a refugee camp and a Syrian man asked me when will Europeans, and also the international community, stop this killing machine. And I couldn’t give him an answer…
We also spoke to María Muñiz de Urquiza a Spanish MEP from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats, to get her response to Elia’s comment:
I think that the European Union can help the opposition, but not necessarily by delivering arms. I think that there are other ways, for example, by helping the population of the liberated territories through aid programmes. But [sending weapons] to a dispersed opposition in such a violent conflict is very dangerous. In any case, we need a resolution or an authorisation by the UN Security Council before making any military intervention.
Finally, following the Egyptian coup last month we had a comment sent in from David, who cautioned that European countries should “stay neutral” in these sort of conflicts and “only involve ourselves if there is a threat of genocide”. We took this comment to Ivo Vajgl, an MEP with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and former Slovenian Foreign Minister, to see how he would respond: