There’s a cartoon doing the rounds online in Idlib, one of Syria’s last rebel strongholds. It depicts a huge mountain of skulls, all white except for one, which is glowing bright yellow from the effects of a chemical weapon attack. A spindly Uncle Sam is reaching into the pile to pluck out the yellow skull, outraged and shocked, while ignoring all the skulls around it.
A signature on the cartoon indicates it’s from last year, but it could just as well have been drawn today. “Mission accomplished,” boasted Donald Trump, after last Saturday morning’s air strikes. Britain, said Prime Minister Theresa May, had learnt “the lesson of history” and was taking a stand on “the global rules and standards that keep us safe”. This will ring rather hollow in Syria, where at least 400,000 people have died and 13 million been displaced by its civil war so far. The truth is that, despite these air strikes, the war is getting worse, not better, and the ferocious debate in Britain is nothing but a sideshow.
For what it’s worth, May did the right thing — and it was her decision, and not parliament’s, to take. Firstly, the strikes have at least imposed some cost on Syrian President Bashar Al Assad for one element of his brutality and will make him think twice about deploying chemical weapons. Second, they expressed the West’s moral disgust with his regime. Third, they were a warning shot to all of the powers involved in a proxy war in Syria that the West isn’t an entirely spent force and can be roused to action under certain circumstances. Fourth, they were a nod to the idea that international norms matter, even if their reality is deeply flawed. From the reports so far, no one died in the operation to achieve all of these outcomes. “Mission accomplished,” you might say.
Zoom out from the fevered debate on our TV screens, however, and you’ll see what an incredibly modest mission this was. In strategic terms it was almost irrelevant, and was designed to be so. In reality, the strikes sent two messages. The first was the one intended by western governments. The second, alluded to by the cartoon skulls, is that western voters have lost faith in military intervention. We no longer believe we have any ability to solve humanitarian crises, and we will not allow our governments to become deeply entangled in any conflict so far outside our territory. This is as true in Syria as it is in Ukraine.
The action taken in Syria was not popular. A YouGov poll found that two-thirds of Britons opposed it. Some of this opposition will take the form of an isolationist mentality shared by many Trump supporters, a belief that we shouldn’t interfere, that might is right and that international rules are a sham. Another group, made up of those like Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, share a general belief that dropping bombs is always wrong and regard their own government as a guilty party, seeing it as a perpetual warmonger.
But a third group, which I would guess is the largest, simply doesn’t see the point. Recent history has shown that even if we wield overwhelming firepower and achieve military goals with surprising speed, as in Iraq and Libya, and even if we spend billions on aid, stable democracies do not spring from warring, sectarian states. Instead, you get murderous militias, strongman generals and rogue terrorist states. Military intervention is the “easy” bit.
Meanwhile, Syria’s future looks as bleak as ever. About six months ago, the idea that the civil war was almost over, with Al Assad having won, started to become widespread. In Lebanon, politicians began to talk about sending home the millions of refugees living informally on its territory. Western governments, having helped to take out Daesh, knew they had inadvertently helped to deliver a huge boost to Al Assad, and they seemed quietly resigned to the situation.
But the war isn’t over, and the situation is getting worse.
The Daesh “caliphate” might have collapsed, but a patchwork of terrorist splinter groups have sprung up in its place. Hundreds of thousands of rebels are holed up in Idlib, the city to which fighters are evacuated whenever a ceasefire is agreed. Turkey has taken its opportunity to stamp on the Kurds by invading Afrin. The future of Raqqa, wrested from Daesh by a mixture of Kurdish and rebel Arab ground forces with Western air and intelligence support, is now in flux. Only recently, Trump declared he would be pulling all US forces out, although his new national security adviser John Bolton might persuade him to reconsider.
Israel has stepped up its selective bombing of targets to try and curb the growing power of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia whose troops have been an enormous help to Al Assad. Hezbollah’s success in Syria and its enormous military build-up on the Israel-Lebanon border also mean that Iran is expanding its sphere of influence right up to the Mediterranean. This is something that neither the Gulf states nor Israel will accept. So it raises the possibility that another front in the war could soon open up, and if it does, what Russia will do is unknown. It has little appetite for a confrontation with Israel, but is militarily enmeshed with Israel’s enemies.
Faced with this ever-changing snake-pit of competing interests, the best option for the US — and Britain — seems to be, keep a close eye on it all and intervene opportunistically. With Russia and now Turkey deeply involved on the ground, the risks posed by intervention on any grander scale are immeasurably greater than they were in 2013, when British parliament scotched the government’s attempt to extend its anti-Daesh bombing campaign from Iraq.
So instead, the West has to watch and help its allies when it can. These interventions will not be popular, nor will they be given a definitive stamp of approval by the United Nations, as Corbyn fatuously suggests should happen, since Russia blocks all UN resolutions that run counter to its interests. But the model that defeated Daesh, in which western air power and intelligence backed up other allied forces on the ground, shows how Europe and the US can achieve some strategic aims without getting fully entangled. That, for now, is all that western voters will allow and, to be honest, who can blame them?
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2018
Juliet Samuel is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph.