The war in Syria has been raging for 6 years now, and it took a new turn overnight as Trump ordered an air-strike on Homs airfield, the base from which Assad launched the horrendous sarin gas strike this week.
But Trump is dealing with a symptom, not the cause. And the situation in Syria is far too complicated for this sort of reactive, blunt force response.
What makes it so complicated? Take a look at this video, which was made a year ago:
The situation is even more complicated since this video was made: we have seen the fall of Aleppo, for instance. And Assad has crossed that red line again with another chemical attack on his own people.
There have been heartbreaking pictures of dying children circulating online — I will not show those here. I understand that these images can raise awareness of the horrors of Assad’s regime, but it feels too much like exploiting the dead for clicks. By all means, Google them if you want. You may see them shared on Facebook. But I’m not going to be part of that.
So why did Assad cross that line again? You mean, other than the fact that he is a grotesque dictator with no regard for his own citizens, and a desperate need to wrest power back from those fighting against him? I think there are three other reasons: he knows he has allies, he knows he has enemies, and he doesn’t fear the consequences.
Having allies is an obvious boost for Assad. Having enemies might sound like an odd reason for him to be feeling comfortable, but he has benefitted from one of these enemies being ISIS. Attacking him would make ISIS stronger — something literally no-one wants. Attacking ISIS - which a lot of nations want to do - makes Assad stronger, and implies tacit approval of his regime.
Why should he fear the consequences? Western nations had no appetite for war when he used chemical weapons the first time. Western intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan has taught us all a lesson in that regard. We know from bitter experience that intervention comes with a price. Our leaders don’t want to be branded as war criminals in a few years. They are understandably reluctant to commit troops to action that will inevitably lead to further loss of human life, on both sides. War is expensive — financially, politically and in terms of human life. War can make things worse. The West doesn’t want to make the same mistakes again. Unfortunately, we are just making a whole load of new mistakes.
During the fall of Aleppo, the former Chancellor George Osborne made the following speech in an emergency debate in Parliament. Now, I should preface this by saying that I rarely agree with George Osborne. It’s only happened twice to my knowledge — when we were on the same side during the EU referendum, and when he made this speech:
There it is — the price for not intervening. By not wanting to make things worse, did the West in fact make things a lot worse?
Well, we have some action now, with Trump’s air-strike. But he has forgotten those reasons for Assad’s boldness. He has friends, primarily Russia and Iran. And those friends are not happy right now.
There were talks taking place at the UN this week about the situation in Syria, and it looked like the USA, the UK and France were in favour of getting Russia on board with a diplomatic approach before taking a vote — probably the only sane approach to this mess. But the USA has screwed that up now. The Kremlin are calling Trump’s air-strike an “illegal act of aggression”.
To the observer, this looks like it has the potential to turn into World War Three. We have a dictator committing barbaric, brutal acts against his own citizens, and major players lining up on both sides.
What on earth is the way forward?
If diplomacy does not work, the West can either look on and do nothing (beyond sending aid and taking in refugees), or commit to military action. If it is to be military action, this needs to be a planned and co-ordinated affair, not a plan scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet. It needs to have the backing of the UN. Otherwise, it just looks like Trump is showing off his new toys. Any co-ordinated military response to Syria is going to need leaders with a calm and consistent approach, who are not provoked easily, who do not lose their temper and wipe out human lives with the flick of a switch, who recognise that this is going to take a long time and probably make them unpopular.
I don’t know how to ‘fix’ Syria. But I am certain that Trump has neither the temperament nor the skill to do so.
If the apocalypse comes, beep me. I’ll be in my bunker.