Why this strike on Syria was jus­ti­fied

The Sunday Telegraph - - Letters to the editor -

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’

ES­TAB­LISHED 1961

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