After seven years of almost unimaginable suffering in Syria, last week witnessed another dreadful low. Chemical weapons are alleged to have been dropped in two strikes in Dhouma, the last rebel-held town in Eastern Ghouta – one targeting a bakery. Dozens were killed.
In addition, according to a relief organisation that supports hospitals, more than 500 patients were treated in hospital, mostly women and children. They added that rescue workers searching homes found the bodies of children with oral foaming, blueish discolouration of the skin and corneal burns.
There is something particularly shocking about the use of chemical weapons. The First World War poet, Wilfred Owen, wrote hauntingly about a British soldier who was unable to fit his gas mask in time. His eyes were left “writhing in his face” and blood coming from “froth-corrupted lungs”.
It was international revulsion at the agonising suffering caused which led to these weapons being banned, first by the Geneva Protocol in 1925, and later by the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997. The 1997 agreement has been signed by 192 nations, representing 98% of the world’s population – including Syria.
So how should the UK respond? For those of us with searing memories of the ill-judged 2003 Iraq War, the instinct is to proceed with extreme caution. The Middle East presents endless opportunities to make a bad situation worse. And one of my MP colleagues had a point when he referred to the two sides as “monsters” on the one hand and “maniacs” on the other. The idea that there is some moderate opposition ready to roll out a tolerant, pluralist democracy to replace Assad is absurd.
Equally, if we do nothing international law is seriously undermined. The Chemical Weapons Convention risks becoming a dead letter.
One thing is clear: we should seek independent verification of what took place. The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is preparing to deploy to Syria shortly. They should be allowed to do their work.
And if action is called for, it should be calibrated and proportionate.