An ex­pen­sive fire­work dis­play, but noth­ing much changes for As­sad’s bru­tal regime

Af­ter seven years of fail­ing to act, we can re­view where a non­in­ter­ven­tion­ist pol­icy has got us. It has been an ut­ter catas­tro­phe

The Guardian Weekly - - International News - Luke Hard­ing

On the face of it, the at­tacks on the al­leged homes of Bashar al-As­sad’s chem­i­cal weapons pro­gramme by the US, France and Britain counted as a re­sound­ing mil­i­tary suc­cess. More than 100 mis­siles had hit their tar­gets.

Af­ter­wards the man be­hind this show of force, Don­ald Trump, struck a tri­umphal note. In a tweet, he con­grat­u­lated France and the UK on a “per­fectly ex­e­cuted strike” and thanked them for their “wis­dom and the power of their fine mil­i­tary”.

The de­ci­sion to at­tack Syria fol­lowed the regime’s use of poi­son gas on 7 April against the then rebel-held Da­m­as­cus sub­urb of Douma, now re­oc­cu­pied by regime forces. Viewed in nar­row terms, the strikes worked. No civil­ians were killed. Cru­cially, Rus­sian mil­i­tary ca­su­al­ties on the ground were avoided. Trump had tele­graphed his in­ten­tion to hit Syria well in ad­vance. This al­lowed the regime – and its Ira­nian and Rus­sian back­ers – time to move per­son­nel and mu­ni­tions out of the tar­get zones. As­sad’s abil­ity to gas his own peo­ple re­mains. Most civil­ians have been killed by con­ven­tional weapons.

The at­tack, crit­ics said, was an ex­pen­sive fire­work dis­play, ex­e­cuted with­out any long-term plan for peace in Syria or co­her­ent geopo­lit­i­cal strat­egy. Syr­ian ex­iles op­posed to the regime de­cried its mod­est am­bi­tion. They pre­dicted that As­sad would con­tinue to mur­der his op­po­nents ex­actly as be­fore.

The cyn­i­cal view is that the tim­ing of Trump’s oper­a­tion was rem­i­nis­cent of Wag the Dog, the Hol­ly­wood com­edy about a pres­i­dent who goes to war to dis­tract from a sex scan­dal.

In­ter­na­tional re­ac­tion to the raids has been pre­dictable. Vladimir Putin – whose forces have bombed Syria

ev­ery day for the past two years, tar­get­ing hos­pi­tals – com­plained of “an act of ag­gres­sion”.

Syr­ian state TV showed As­sad – or some­one who looked like him – go­ing to work as usual on Satur­day. As­sad said his coun­try would stand its ground “against an agenda im­posed by the west”.

Now Trump can claim that – un­like the “dither­ing” Obama – he had acted de­ci­sively. The Krem­lin can point out that the bomb­ing was min­i­mal, with no ca­su­al­ties. Im­me­di­ate fol­low-up ac­tion seems un­likely af­ter the US de­fence sec­re­tary, James Mat­tis, said: “Right now this is a one-time shot.”

The prospect of a sum­mit be­tween Trump and Putin looms. With the foot­ball World Cup in Rus­sia on the hori­zon, Moscow will be keen to dial down the pos­si­bil­ity of con­fronta­tion. Mean­while, Syria’s agony goes on.

Let’s cut the cant­ing. No one thinks, not those or­der­ing them and not those op­pos­ing them, that the mis­sile strikes against the As­sad regime will in­flu­ence the out­come of the catas­tro­phe in Syria. If there was an op­por­tu­nity for Amer­ica, Britain and their al­lies to make a dif­fer­ence for the bet­ter, the chance was missed many, many deaths ago. What we are wit­ness to – on the part of both the lead­ers of the west­ern democ­ra­cies and their crit­ics – is a tableau of ac­tors strik­ing pos­tures de­signed to make the play­ers feel bet­ter about them­selves. This pos­ing can never re­write the blood-drenched his­tory of a seven-year con­flict that has turned Syria into a char­nel house and shred­ded in­ter­na­tional norms about the con­duct of war.

The prox­i­mate cause of this cri­sis is the chem­i­cal at­tack on Douma. Af­ter years of un­mas­terly in­ac­tiv­ity by the democ­ra­cies, it is that atroc­ity that drew at­ten­tion back to what is hap­pen­ing in Syria and fi­nally stirred puni­tive ac­tion against Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad. In the words of the in­ef­fa­ble Don­ald Trump, the re­tal­ia­tory strikes are sup­posed to demon­strate to “an­i­mal As­sad” that there is a “price to pay” for the dic­ta­tor’s use of banned weaponry. In the more mea­sured lan­guage of Theresa May, “we can­not al­low the use of chem­i­cal weapons to be nor­malised”. Yet the nor­mal­i­sa­tion of chem­i­cal weapons is pre­cisely what has al­ready hap­pened in Syria. As­sad’s regime has time and again used chem­i­cal war­fare to slaugh­ter its own peo­ple, as it has also de­ployed hideous “con­ven­tional” weapons, such as drop­ping bar­rel bombs and fuel-air bombs on civil­ian ar­eas to in­flict mass ca­su­al­ties.

Over seven years of re­lent­less sav­agery in Syria, the hands of the lead­ers of the west­ern pow­ers have been wedged firmly under their bot­toms. They have been en­cour­aged to main­tain this im­po­tent pos­ture by leg­is­la­tors too fee­ble to grip the dilem­mas posed by Syria and vot­ers weary of en­gage­ment with the hard parts of the world. Lis­ten­ing to both their pub­lic pro­nounce­ments and their pri­vate cal­cu­la­tions, the abid­ing im­pres­sion is that this be­lated and lim­ited ac­tion by Wash­ing­ton, Lon­don and Paris is not driven by any con­vic­tion that these strikes will make any mean­ing­ful dif­fer­ence. Mis­siles are fly­ing mainly to soothe guilt about re­peated ear­lier fail­ures to act.

Even so, I give these lead­ers a lit­tle more credit than I can find for those whose only coun­sel is to do ab­so­lutely noth­ing. At least some of these be­lated in­ter­ven­tion­ists are wrestling with a gen­uine dilemma. To let yet an­other use of chem­i­cal weapons hap­pen with­out any form of re­sponse would have given a com­plete sense of im­punity to the As­sad regime and its spon­sors in the Krem­lin.

The non-in­ter­ven­tion­ists come in two cat­e­gories. There are the “it’s noth­ing to do with us” brigade who de­clare that “we haven’t got a dog in the Syr­ian fight”. Mainly to be found on the hand-wash­ing right, the cold bru­tal­ity with which they ex­press their in­dif­fer­ence to so much hu­man suf­fer­ing has the sole merit of be­ing can­did.

Less hon­est, not least with them­selves, are the self-pro­claimed peace-lovers. Mainly to be found on the hand-wring­ing left, they are too busy look­ing in the mir­ror ad­mir­ing their own ha­los to face the moral chal­lenges posed by a sit­u­a­tion like Syria. Jeremy Cor­byn op­poses last week­end’s ac­tion on the grounds that it “risks es­ca­lat­ing fur­ther” what is “an al­ready dev­as­tat­ing con­flict”. The Labour leader and those who share his world view are con­sis­tent. Do noth­ing has been their un­var­ied pol­icy for the past seven years of car­nage. There is no doubt that they can ex­pect sup­port from much of a do­mes­tic elec­torate turned al­ler­gic to en­gag­ing with abroad, es­pe­cially the Mid­dle East.

As the non-in­ter­ven­tion­ists have preached in­ac­tion, the death toll in Syria has been re­morse­lessly es­ca­lated by the As­sad regime and its al­lies. When­ever pressed to say what they would do, the non-in­ter­ven­tion­ists fall back on call­ing for “ne­go­ti­a­tions” and more ef­fort at the United Na­tions. They have to be aware that Rus­sia has re­peat­edly used its se­cu­rity coun­cil veto to shield As­sad from any ef­fec­tive ac­tion by the UN. While the non-in­ter­ven­tion­ists have talked about talk­ing, the As­sad regime and its back­ers in the Krem­lin and Iran have been free to go on killing.

It is not prov­able whether ear­lier in­ter­ven­tion would have al­tered the course of Syria’s tragic his­tory. Non­in­ter­ven­tion­ists said then, as they say now, that any­thing that the west does only makes things worse. That we can’t prove ei­ther. What we can see is how bad things have be­come and it is hard to con­ceive how ex­actly it could be worse. Af­ter seven years of fail­ing to act in Syria, we can au­dit where a non-in­ter­ven­tion­ist pol­icy has got us. It has been an ut­ter dis­as­ter in ev­ery re­spect.

The United Na­tions strug­gles to put an ex­act fig­ure on how many peo­ple have died, but best es­ti­mates put the num­ber at around half a mil­lion. More than 5 mil­lion Syr­i­ans are refugees abroad and more than 6 mil­lion have been in­ter­nally dis­placed. As­sad has flat­tened cities and smashed through nearly ev­ery in­ter­na­tional ta­boo about the con­duct of war. The Syr­ian dic­ta­tor is mas­sacring his way to vic­tory and there is no one who thinks that mis­sile strikes will in any way im­pede him. The con­flict has in­ex­orably widened and now con­sumes the re­gion as Syria has been turned into a bat­tle­field for proxy con­flicts be­tween re­gional play­ers. Rus­sia has been en­cour­aged in its bel­liger­ence. The west looks help­less. Dic­ta­tors the world over have been em­bold­ened to be­lieve that they can crush op­po­si­tion us­ing the most bar­baric meth­ods and the rest of the world will do noth­ing to stop them. Those striv­ing for free­dom have been com­men­su­rately dis­heart­ened. The rule of in­ter­na­tional law has been weak­ened.

Ac­tion has con­se­quences and they are not al­ways the ones in­tended and hoped for. That was the grisly les­son of Iraq. In­ac­tion also has con­se­quences. Do­ing noth­ing can have a price ev­ery bit as high. I’d think bet­ter of the non­in­ter­ven­tion­ists if they’d ever once ad­mit that. In­ac­tion has been a ter­ri­ble choice in Syria.

In­ter­ven­tion­ists have been rightly obliged to own all that went hor­ri­bly wrong in Iraq. Non-in­ter­ven­tion­ists, the hor­rors of Syria are on you.

While the non­in­ter­ven­tion­ists have talked about talk­ing, the As­sad regime and its back­ers have been free to go on killing

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