Air strikes only expose the West’s weakness

Published by The i paper (16th April, 2018)

One year ago the newly-elected president of the United States was watching cable news when it showed distressing images of a chemical attack on a Syrian village. Donald Trump started talking to aides about the ‘horrible’ footage. Then this man who banned Syrians from entering his country and berated his predecessor for contemplating air strikes four years earlier ordered his armed forces into retaliatory action. ‘No child of God should ever suffer such horror,’ he told his nation.

Trump had won his election as an isolationist, complaining about the trillions of dollars blown on America’s misadventures in the Middle East. One week before the bombing his team insisted that Bashar Assad, despite hands drenched in blood, could stay in power in Syria. Then he saw children suffering on television, asked military chiefs how to respond and within 48 hours of the broadcast had authorised air strikes.

Now images of more Syrian children hit by chemical weapons have provoked another round of bombing, this time backed by Britain and France. Downing Street sources briefed journalists that our prime minister was sparked into action after seeing how Assad’s forces used gas on civilians hiding in Douma cellars. ‘She was very struck by the sheer inhumanity of it,’ said one aide.

Never mind that there have been dozens of chemical weapon attacks in this hideous war. Nor that Trump’s previous strike achieved little (one man with the White Helmets rescue team in eastern Ghouta told me they were hit four times in five weeks by chlorine gas before last weekend’s attack). Nor indeed that those enduring horrors inflicted by Assad and his allies say barrel bombs filled with oil, shrapnel and high explosives are far more terrifying than chlorine gas as they devastate hospitals, schools and markets. Our leaders saw some distressing pictures so something had to be done.

The air strikes on Saturday morning were carefully calibrated. Trump warned of his intent though Twitter, ensuring his target had time to hide supplies. As he tweeted in 2013, ‘giving up the element of surprise’ in such a situation is ‘stupid’. The assault was bigger than last year, yet smaller than anticipated in Damascus and designed not to hit Russia’s military machine. Mission accomplished politically, making Western leaders look tough on illegal arms. Yet last year’s attack shows this kind of action does little to stop use of easily-made weapons, nor to stem Assad’s advance.

Put aside the alarming suggestion US and British leaders ignored Assad’s barbarity until moved by media footage, with the implication they act from emotion rather than clear-eyed analysis of the world and Western interests. All these raids do is expose the vacuity of Western leadership, exemplified by a vacillating strategy that has shifted power in the Middle East towards Russia and Iran.

Days before this attack, Trump said that he wanted to withdraw troops from Syria and ‘let other people take care of it now.’ This highlights the West’s hesitancy over how to handle events in Syria after demonstrators took to streets in 2011, repeatedly letting down those it backed amid defeats and infighting, while the likes of Iran and Russia were resolute over support for dictatorship and Assad fanned jihadists groups to divide his foes. The US-led approach is so chaotic that the CIA was at one stage found to be funding a group fighting another backed by the state department.

This blast of gesture bombing makes no difference to the war, nor is it likely to deter any other tyrant contemplating use of illegal weapons. Syrian opposition figures condemned the ‘weak’ response. ‘Assad is allowed to use all kinds of weapons to kill us except chemicals,’ tweeted one activist. Yet it boosts Assad, defiant against the West, and underscores with its timidity the strength of Russia and Iran.

Barack Obama decided against similar action in 2013, accepting he could not eliminate chemical stockpiles. ‘What I would then face was the prospect of Assad having survived the strike and claiming he had successfully defied the United States, that the US had acted unlawfully in absence of a UN mandate, and that that would have potentially strengthened his hand rather than weakened it’ he said later.

Obama opted for diplomacy, putting pressure on Russia to force Syria into an admission for the first time that it had a chemical stockpile, which was then supposedly destroyed. The arsenal seems to have been rebuilt, showing the ease of making these weapons. Sure, it is good to weaken Assad’s ability to use gas on his fellow citizens. Yet given his routine use of such weapons, what are the rules for reprisals – is it only when video footage is heart-wrenching? Should we believe Trump or his defence secretary over whether this is a sustained response or ‘a one-time shot’? Why are barrel bombs permitted? And where is any strategy to promote human rights and recover lost influence?

Many problems in the region were exacerbated by the idiotic 2003 invasion of Iraq that inflamed Islamic terror and undermined the cause of freedom it claimed to represent. Yet they are worsened by an infantile and flip-flopping US president. Nikki Haley, his UN ambassador, says “Russia can complain about fake news but no-one is buying its lies” after Moscow blames Britain for staging events in Douma – but her own leader has done much to corrode faith in mainstream media while supporting other despots.

These strikes expose the weakness of Western leadership. There was a time in this depressing conflict when we could have imposed no-fly zones and shown consistency on the ground in support of moderates. Now we need to accept that our role, if not willing to challenge Russia and Iran, is to push for peace, sanctions and war crimes cases. But who really knows what the West wants now in the Middle East? Obama’s timidity on Syria can be criticised. But impulsively lashing out with no wider strategy is far worse.

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