It may appear that the recent airstrikes in Syria will have little effect on the Syrian Regime and its backers of Iran and Russia. Yet there were very good reasons why they occurred, and why they should have their desired effect.
It has for some time been accepted by Western powers that President Assad’s regime in Syria is there to stay and that his continuation in power is the least worst of the options available. The question then arises, with the defeat of ISIS near completion, why did the West, represented by the US, UK and France, jointly feel the need and urgency to punish the regime for its use of chemical weapons in Douma on 7th April 2018?
It is clear that Western nations now view the situation is Syria as it really is, as opposed to how they would like it to be; that is to say, it is no longer a complex problem, but is now chaotic one and that needs a different approach to decision making, where novel ideas have to be tested, and observed; and there is risk here. The point is that the West’s original strategy is in tatters, as it is clear there is no solution that will come close to satisfying the needs of the majority of the Syrian people nor the original demands of the West (the removal of the Assad Regime). The last 7 years have shown that there are too many stakeholders with too many options, with multiple outcomes to bank on a particular vision of what ‘success’ might look like. The subsequent military and political disengagement decision that both the US and UK chose to take from August and September 2013 onwards, has had significant consequences. Russia has become the major power broker, whilst an emboldened Iran and a more interventionist Turkey have all had knock on effects, with unpredictable outcomes. There has been up until recently, a feeling that throughout the Middle East, the US is no longer a reliable partner to its allies, that the spread of Iranian influence is inevitable, (with significant consequences for Israel) and that yet again, the fate of the Kurdish people is in doubt.
Given the catastrophe that has unfolded in 7 years of Syrian civil war, the more recent Western approach was that it was better to ‘hold one’s nose’ and watch the rump of Syria return to regime control and hope that in some way, life might return to some sort of ‘norm’. This would achieve stability, reduce the refugee flow into the EU and possibly prevent Western/EU/NATO relations with Turkey from deteriorating further. However, the Syrian Regime’s chemical attack in Douma, which was undoubtably a tactical success (Douma now in regime hands), has changed all of that. The use of chemical weapons has, in effect, allowed the West to re-engage as legitimate stakeholders and thus it must be viewed as a major miscalculation on the part of the regime and their major backer, Russia.
There is of course, an obvious primary reason why the decision was made to strike and punish the Syrian Regime (as outlined in the UK Prime Minister’s letter to MPs), and that was to make it crystal clear that although the West has floundered in the past on drawing a red line on the use of chemical weapons, it is now prepared to act. As further military combat in civilian populated areas will be expected between the regime and the last few rebel held areas in Syria, it is critical to the West that the regime understands that further use of chemical weapons will not go unpunished. Possibly more importantly, the fate of Syrian Kurds still hangs in the balance, and use of chemical weapons in Kurdish held regions cannot be discounted. The grim history of Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s is an example that it could so easily happen again. Lastly, there is a dawning realisation that the use of chemical weapons is not just the concern of Syria. Be it the poisoning of the North Korean President’s brother in Malaysia, or the poisoning of the Skripal family in Salisbury, there is no doubt that the risk of chemical weapon use on a global scale has become greater and a new weapon of choice is among us. For desperate regimes keen to suppress any opposition whether that be internally or abroad, chemical attacks look like an attractive option. In this sense, there is a feeling that world order and an ‘international rules-based system’ is falling apart. The airstrikes in Syria are designed to make a statement to more than just a Middle Eastern regime who cares little for civilian casualties and suffering. It is a message that the West is returning to a zero tolerance approach to the use of chemical weapons.
There is a good historical example that reinforces this point. In 1936, France and the UK were faced with a second dictator on European soil. The Italian facist leader, Mussolini, was keen to expand his Italian empire in the horn of Africa. In an attempt to appease Mussolini and keep him out of an axis with Hitler’s Nazi Germany, a war weary alliance effectively gave Mussolini the green light to a ‘limited annexation’ of Ethiopia. However, after his military campaign in Ethiopia began to falter due to stiffer than expected resistance, he used phosgene and mustard gas to defeat the Ethiopian military, an action that went both ignored and unpunished by the alliance, much to the horror of many people in Europe. The appeasement of Mussolini and the ignoring of the fact that he had broken the Geneva Convention through the use of chemical warfare did nothing to stop him joining forces with the Nazis and merely emboldened both himself and Hitler to continue their expansionist policies. There is a strong lesson to be learnt here.
However, beyond a chemical weapons deterrence, there are further messages to be read into the airstrikes. Since September 2013, it has been Russia that has held the greatest influence over Syria, and to start with, this may have been viewed in the West as a practical solution to end the civil war in Syria; perhaps that was at least, the right decision in the circumstances. However, the subsequent United Nations-led Geneva Peace Process to try and mediate and end the war has come to nothing and the Russian initiative in Sochi in trying to bring together Russia, Turkey, Iran and Syria has gained significant momentum, with consequences to the balance of power in the region. However, given Russia’s behaviour over the past four years, be it their indifference to the use of chemical weapons, the certainty of involvement in the Salisbury attack, the continuous targeted cyber offensives globally and the alleged meddling to various degrees in numerous democratic elections has led to a fundamental rethink of this policy. Thus the joint US, UK and French assault, supported by many other Western nations, is sending a unified message that the West is prepared to re-engage in Syria and reserves the right to do it elsewhere if necessary and will also use other political and economical measures to maintain their version of world order. It is, of course, a risky strategy that could unintentionally prolong the war in Syria and risk further deterioration of relations with Russia and even Turkey. Yet on a strategic level, the ‘do nothing’ option is likely to have had even more risks, including an emboldened Russia, free to continue its anti-western approach globally, a significantly strengthened Iran and Hezbollah partnership, that in turn could bring Israel into direct conflict with Iran, a risk that Syrian Kurds might face a new onslaught, and last but not least, a feeling in other pro-Western Middle Eastern states that the US and major European powers are no longer to be relied on for support.
The joint airstrikes by the US, UK and France should be seen in this context and not just a response to see that ‘something must be seen to be done’. There is a great deal more at stake for the West. To paraphrase some great words of Von Clausewitz, “Never misunderstand the war you are fighting for anything other than what it is”.
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