Why this strike on Syria was justified
Britain and its allies have shown that there is a price to pay for the outrage of using chemical weapons against innocent civilians. Airstrikes by the UK, the USA and France in the early hours of yesterday morning hit three sites involved in the production and storage of these grotesque weapons, whose use has been prohibited by global agreement since 1928. “While this action is specifically about deterring the Syrian regime,” the Prime Minister said, “it will also send a clear signal to anyone else who believes they can use chemical weapons with impunity.”
On this basis, it was justified. The world has succeeded for nearly a century in keeping chemical weapons off battlefields, even during the Second World War. If we were to treat them as just part of war, like the bullets and bombs that killed most of the Syrian conflict’s estimated 500,000 dead, they would swiftly become so. It was necessary to impress upon the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and on the Russians for that matter, that this would not stand. Our failure to do so in 2013, following Assad’s chemical attack on Ghouta, was moral as well as diplomatic: a disastrous weakening of our credibility as a force for justice, already damaged after the fatal bungling of the Iraq war.
Whether that price will be high enough to dissuade Assad from doing the same again is another matter. This strike was in response to another attack on the
Damascus suburb of
Douma, which is thought to have killed 40 or more. Last April, Donald Trump sent a similar signal: a rain of Tomahawk missiles in response to the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun. Beyond damaging a few runways and destroying a few planes, it clearly did not change Assad’s calculation that chemical weapons, which remove rebels and civilians while leaving infrastructure intact, are worth the trouble.
Will this time be different? It is true that Friday’s strike was bigger, involving both more missiles and more nations. It has attracted wider backing, too, contrary to the craven assertion of the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn that the Prime Minister merely “trailed after Donald Trump”. The leaders of Canada, Australia, Germany, Spain, Israel and the EU all issued messages of support, and the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, will be meeting European leaders tomorrow to formalise their condemnation of Assad’s horrors, alongside pushing for further sanctions against his backers in Russia and Iran. It will be harder for Assad to bat all this away as merely a Trumpian caprice.
The strike could also change the calculations of Iran and Russia. It is notable that the muchvaunted Russian air defences, installed after Turkey shot down a Russian plane over Syria, were not used. It is possible, therefore, that the strikes have made Vladimir Putin see that he cannot stop a US intervention in Syria, or at least that he would be unwise to do so. Just days ago it was feared that any Western strike could result in humiliation. Putin may swagger still, but he is not the master of Syria he once claimed to be.
It could be a salutary warning to Iran, too, which has been busily turning Syria into a satrapy along with its terrorist allies Hizbollah. This has alarmed Israel, thought to have been behind a separate air strike against a Syrian airforce base on Monday which killed several Iranians. Leaving the region free to authoritarian despots could lead to Israel being drawn into a deeper conflict.
However, it is important to be clear about what this strike was not. There is no question of boots on the ground, or a repeat of the doomed attempts at nation building that ended so disastrously in Iraq and Libya. While Mr Trump said America’s allies were prepared for a “sustained” response to Assad’s crimes, US defence secretary Jim Mattis said it was a “one time” strike. There is no appetite in Britain for any attempt to influence the course of the Syrian civil war, which looks more likely by the day to be won by Assad.
This is worth repeating, because the arguments of the British Left have been deeply disingenuous. It warns against plans almost nobody proposes and insists on facts almost nobody disputes. Had the Prime Minister recalled Parliament last week, it would not have been debating an invasion or a regime change but a very limited response to a single important principle in the context of a vicious civil war which Britain did not start and which it knows it cannot end. To see Labour politicians refusing to engage with this grim but narrow dilemma, substituting in its place a psychodrama of their own, is disappointing but not surprising. When Mrs May does address Parliament this week to explain her decisions, as is right, she need not be part of their show.
‘Our failure [to respond] in 2013 was moral as well as diplomatic, a disastrous weakening of our credibility’
‘There is no question of boots on the ground, or a repeat of the doomed attempts at nation building’