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
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