Donald Trump, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron directed their military forces to launch missile strikes on certain installations in Syria, which, they claim, have some role in the manufacture or use of chemical weapons, as a response to reports of such usage in Douma in the last hours of the subjugation of the East Ghouta rebel enclave.
This operation is asserted to be a deterrent to the future use of such weapons by the Assad regime, and a form of retribution for their past use and for the breach of commitments made by the Syrians and the Russians that chemical weapons would not be used again in the Syrian civil war.
What are we to make of this missile strike?
Firstly, General Matthis has described it as a one-off event. This suggests that the missile strikes are not part of a rolling programme of degradation of Assad’s military capacity. Theresa May has stated that the strike is not intended to affect the outcome of the Syrian civil war or to bring about regime change. Speaking about the missile strike on BBC radio on Saturday morning, Lord Richards, a former general, and Frank Gardner, a security correspondent, both accepted that the Assad regime had effectively won the Syrian civil war, and that the priority now was to re-establish peace so as to allow the rebuilding of Syrian society. Gardner went further, by stating that, in retrospect, the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war had prevented the establishment of an ISIS/jihadist Islamist regime in Damascus.
Second, while I am wary of appearing to be “a useful idiot” or of lapping up Russian fake news, there is something about the Douma incident that somehow does not make sense. Discounting completely the Russian suggestion that some foreign power carried out the chemical weapons in attack in Douma, there still remains the possibility that the incident was contrived to provoke military intervention by the Western powers. It seems almost absurd, in terms of the Assad regime’s short, medium and long term self-interest to have used chemical weapons, especially when the East Ghouta operation was almost complete and bound to succeed. It even raises the question as to whether Assad would have contemplated taking this step when it clearly doesn’t suit his Russian allies or his Iranian supporters to bring things to a head at this time. When victory was at hand, why should they turn it into an opportunity to snatch a defeat?
Third, even assuming that the chemical attack was carried out by Syrian state forces, we must ask what practical purpose has been served by retaliatory missile strikes on Assad’s installations? Unless they have the effect of toppling Assad and his regime, they would appear to have served little or no purpose. As a moral statement, perhaps they have some value in underlining the abhorrence of chemical weapons. They may serve Donald Trump’s domestic political purposes, in that he heavily criticised Obama for not taking military action when the chemical weapons red line was transgressed in the past. But opinion polls in the UK suggest that Britain’s participation in the operation had only 20% support.
Furthermore, it is difficult to see how missile strikes launched from aircraft supplied by the UK and the US to the Saudi government, which killed scores of people attending a wedding in Sanaa, in the Yemen, two years ago, are radically different or morally more tolerable.
The fourth question we must ask is whether missile attacks are likely to be effective. Given that Theresa May has disavowed regime change or altering the outcome of the civil war, the Western intervention appears to be limited in scale and even more limited in impact.
The irony of the situation is that Donald Trump had appeared last week to be hinting at his intention to withdraw all US forces from the Syrian theatre of engagement. Apart from the shameful unspoken decision to allow Turkey a free hand in dealing with Trump’s erstwhile Kurdish allies, who bore the brunt of the casualties in eradicating ISIS from north western Syria, there is something very strange about Trump’s flip-flopping on America’s strategic aims.
The fundamental question that can never be answered by a fusillade of missiles is as to what kind of regime could replace the Assad regime and what kind of Syria could arise from the ashes of the present civil war if Assad is defeated.
Ask any Syrian Christian, Alawite, Druze, or Shia, or even any republican secularists, and you will hear what they think of the installation of a Sunni-dominated Islamist regime supported by the likes of Saudi Arabia.
Indeed, it was Qatar and the Saudis, acting back then as joint sponsors of an Islamist Sunni revolution, that started the Syrian civil war. It was Britain, France and the US who tacitly supported that Islamist revolution as part of what they termed the “Arab Spring”. The immeasurable suffering, displacement and economic damage which flowed from the unsuccessful attempt to replace Assad’s secular regime with a Sunni dominated Islamist regime must be the responsibility of the western powers who did nothing to stop the Saudis and the Qataris in their failed attempt to overthrow Assad.
The damage done to Europe by the resulting wave of immigration and the cack-handed response of Angela Merkel with her open-doors policy for migrants coming from the Near East and the Maghreb are all directly attributable to external interference in Syria by international players pursuing very different agendas.
Behind all of the hypocritical posturing of the “Western powers”, and Turkey and Israel too, lies a theory that the greatest threat to western interests stems from the existence of the regime in Iran. The Shia majority in Iraq has disappointed the western powers by siding with Tehran since the end of the Anglo-American intervention in Iraq. That means that the attack on Saddam Hussein was not merely counterproductive inside Iraq but has created the circumstances in which Iran is almost obliged to pursue its own interests across the middle-eastern region as a response to Saudi muscle-flexing.
Readers of this column will remember that I have consistently predicted that Trump’s dysfunctional personality would move him towards war-making as a distraction from his own internal political failures.
Ask yourself this: exactly what threat does Iran pose to the western world? If you can’t answer that question easily and convincingly, the next obvious question is as to why it has suddenly become accepted orthodoxy among the hawkish elements in Washington, Paris and London that containing Iran is an almost existential imperative for our political, economic and strategic well-being.
All of the foregoing suggests that Ireland would be very foolish to abandon our constitutional prohibition on participation in a common EU defence and military alliance. The four Fine Gael MEPs have recently suggested that Ireland should participate in creating a common EU defence and consider amending the constitution to permit that.
When the world can be brought to the brink of major military hostilities by the likes of Trump, Putin, Assad, May and Macron, we should value our own freedom and stay out of such conflicts.