Leader comment: A warning from history over Syria

Rather than step aside during Arab Spring-style protests, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad launched a brutal war on his own people. (Picture: AFP/Getty)
Rather than step aside during Arab Spring-style protests, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad launched a brutal war on his own people. (Picture: AFP/Getty)
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The brutal slaughter in Syria shames the West, but military action risks triggering a bigger conflict.

Ahead of the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, the eminent historian Professor Margaret MacMillan warned the world was starting to look a lot like 1914, noting Mark Twain’s reputed remark that history “never repeats itself but it rhymes”.

Among a number of similarities, she said the Middle East “bears a worrying resemblance to the Balkans then. A similar mix of toxic nationalisms threatens to draw in outside powers as the US, Turkey, Russia, and Iran all look to protect their interests and their clients”.

So, when deciding how to respond to the latest alleged use of chemical weapons by Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria, the West would be wise to consider whether that could lead to the kind of flashpoint moment that plunges us unexpectedly into a Third World War, a 21st century version of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

READ MORE: Russia claims ‘confrontational policy’ by US, UK and France over Syria attack

Assad is a brutal dictator, whose response to peaceful Arab Springs-style protests was to start killing his own people. There have been repeated, plausible reports that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons. In response, he has simply cried “fake news” and carried on the slaughter, backed by his Russian allies. Neither country has much, if any, credibility.

There are signs the West may have finally had enough with Donald Trump declaring the latest incident a “heinous attack on innocent Syrians with banned chemical weapons” and meeting with US military leaders about a response, warning “nothing is off the table”.

The UK’s ambassador to the United Nations, Karen Pierce, spoke of how it was “truly horrific to think of victims, families sheltering underground when the chlorine found them” and accused Russia of having “the blood of Syrian children” on its hands, while Theresa May said Britain was “working with our allies on what action might be necessary”.

READ MORE: Donald Trump: Syria attack will be ‘met forcefully’

Trump has ordered military action against Syria before, with dozens of cruise missiles hitting the Al Shayrat air base in response to a chemical weapons attack last year. With Russian troops still in Syria, there is an obvious risk that a Western attack could kill some of them.

In early 1914, there was a prevailing theory that nations were so inter-connected by trade that nothing would shatter the decades of relative peace. Syria may indeed be hell on Earth, but our response must not risk spreading that to the rest of the planet.