Where is the west’s strat­egy to top­ple Bashar al-As­sad?

The Observer - - Focus -

The lim­ited, short-lived US, Bri­tish and French mis­sile strikes in Syria yes­ter­day are un­likely to have a last­ing im­pact on the course or the con­duct of the civil war. In­deed, Syr­ian op­po­si­tion fig­ures fear the small scale on which they were con­ducted may even en­cour­age Bashar al-As­sad, Syria’s pres­i­dent, to pros­e­cute the con­flict with an en­hanced sense of im­punity. These at­tacks were not in­tended to over­throw the regime or to de­grade Syria’s con­ven­tional mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties or those of its prin­ci­pal al­lies, Rus­sia and Iran. Their pur­pose, ac­cord­ing to Don­ald Trump and Theresa May, was to de­ter fu­ture chem­i­cal weapon­sre­lated atroc­i­ties sim­i­lar to that in Douma last week­end, which killed dozens of civil­ians and sparked the cur­rent cri­sis.

The like­li­hood of what looks like very mild pun­ish­ment achiev­ing this ob­jec­tive is open to ques­tion. The Syr­ian regime de­clared the dam­age done to the three tar­gets was min­i­mal and that most of the 100plus al­lied mis­siles were shot down. The claim by Gavin Wil­liamson, the de­fence sec­re­tary, that the strikes would have “enor­mous ef­fect [in] sig­nif­i­cantly re­duc­ing” fu­ture chem­i­cal weapons use is only that: a claim. Wil­liamson can­not pos­si­bly know whether his con­clu­sion is jus­ti­fied. As­sad’s forces launched a sim­i­lar at­tack us­ing sarin gas in Khan Sheikhun last year. Trump re­sponded with air strikes. The regime was not de­terred then and it may not be now.

The scope and im­pact of the al­lied ac­tion will dis­ap­point those who had hoped for a telling or even de­fin­i­tive blow against As­sad. This con­stituency in­cludes not just Syr­ian op­po­si­tion forces, po­lit­i­cal hawks in Europe and the US and Arab lead­ers in Saudi Ara­bia and the Gulf, but also aid agency work­ers and NGOs sick­ened by the west’s con­tin­u­ing fail­ure to halt a slaugh­ter that has cost up­wards of 400,000 lives. Is­raelis, who had seen an op­por­tu­nity to de­liver a de­ci­sive blow against hos­tile Ira­ni­ans forces based in Syria, may also feel it is not enough.

But dis­ap­point­ment will be matched by re­lief in many quar­ters that alarm­ing pre­dic­tions of an es­ca­lat­ing con­flict pit­ting US forces against Rus­sia, and pos­si­ble de­scent into a third world war, have proved wrong. De­spite its an­gry state­ments, Moscow doubt­less shares in this re­lief. Syria is akin to a gun­pow­der store where a sin­gle spark could po­ten­tially set off an ex­plo­sion felt around the world. That re­mains true this morn­ing.

The fact the US trod rel­a­tively lightly seems to be pri­mar­ily due to Jim Mat­tis, the US de­fense sec­re­tary, who re­port­edly re­sisted White House pres­sure for more swinge­ing, sus­tained mil­i­tary ac­tion. Mat­tis quickly de­clared the at­tacks were a “one-off”. Bri­tain and France ap­pear con­tent, with caveats, to ac­cept his ver­dict.

Whether that ap­plies to Don­ald Trump is less cer­tain. His an­tics since this cri­sis un­folded last week­end have been in­flam­ma­tory, con­fronta­tional and deeply ir­re­spon­si­ble. His reck­less words and ac­tions, not least his tweeted threats to fire off “smart” mis­siles at Rus­sia, again demon­strated his un­fit­ness for Amer­ica’s high­est of­fice. We now have the an­swer to the ques­tion of how Trump would han­dle an in­ter­na­tional cri­sis: very badly. Trump is a li­a­bil­ity for Amer­ica and the world.

The ver­dict on Theresa May’s per­for­mance at this mo­ment of acute in­ter­na­tional stress will be more nu­anced. The prime min­is­ter had to bal­ance the de­mands of a bul­ly­ing, in­com­pe­tent US pres­i­dent with the Bri­tish na­tional in­ter­est, in the par­tic­u­lar con­text of the Skri­pal chem­i­cal weapons at­tack. The gov­ern­ment rightly sees Rus­sia’s hand in both Douma and Sal­is­bury. May was also rightly con­cerned to up­hold the global pro­hi­bi­tion on chem­i­cal weapons. Par­tic­i­pa­tion in the strikes was thus both an af­fir­ma­tion of Bri­tain’s es­sen­tial, on­go­ing al­liance with the US (as dis­tinct from Trump) and an­other episode in the broader Bri­tish and west­ern ar­gu­ment with Moscow, which still has a long way to run.

May should nev­er­the­less be crit­i­cised for her will­ing­ness to sanc­tion po­ten­tially risky mil­i­tary ac­tion with­out the ap­proval of par­lia­ment. Tim­ing is not an ex­cuse. The Com­mons could have been re­called last week, in time for a de­bate and a vote. May, who has in­sisted on an ev­i­den­tial ap­proach to Sal­is­bury, also seems to have set aside the need for in­con­tro­vert­ible proof of regime re­spon­si­bil­ity for Douma. In­ter­na­tional in­spec­tors were due there on Satur­day.

May’s con­duct re­calls sim­i­lar, wrong-headed at­tempts to by­pass par­lia­ment in the Brexit process. Yet over­all, the prime min­is­ter emerges from this dif­fi­cult episode with more credit than those who ar­gued, with ap­par­ent dis­re­gard for the dire sit­u­a­tion in Syria, that mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in any cir­cum­stance is wrong. The west­ern pow­ers do not have a right to tell other coun­tries how to or­der their af­fairs. But demo­cratic gov­ern­ments do have a moral and le­gal duty, as do all peace-lov­ing cit­i­zens, to up­hold uni­ver­sal hu­man rights and in­ter­na­tional law.

De­spite the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent’s vain­glo­ri­ous “Mis­sion Ac­com­plished!” tweet yes­ter­day, the es­sen­tial prob­lem re­mains un­changed by the week­end raids: As­sad and his al­lies, con­temp­tu­ous of this very lim­ited at­tempt to pun­ish them, will con­tinue unchecked to mur­der Syria’s peo­ple – Idlib prov­ince is next – un­til they have “won” the war. And there is no cred­i­ble, co­her­ent or agreed west­ern strat­egy for stop­ping them.

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