YES: In defence of airstrikes for human rights
This weekend’s bombing of Syria undertaken in response to chemical weapons attacks in Douma has been met with raucous condemnation, as many fear that the targeted air strikes by the USA, UK and France may escalate the delicate situation that has engulfed Syria since 2011. Comparisons to Iraq have been recklessly made and Twitter is ablaze with claims that Theresa May has led Britain into ‘WW3’.
Nonetheless, there is a clear argument that punitive air strikes against the Assad regime were the correct action.
There is a moral and legal case for intervention. Assad’s chemical attack on civilians in the last rebel-held town in Douma is a flagrant violation of international law by the regime, which deems the use of chemical weapons as unquestionably illegal. This is a regime which has killed massive numbers of civilians since the civil war erupted in 2011 and as of 2018, has displaced approximately 6.1 million Syrians, who have been forced to flee their war-torn homes.
The UN is unable to act as things stand, given Russia’s intimate involvement in the conflict; as UN action regarding the Assad government is consistently vetoed by Russia, who are allied to the Syrian government, alongside Iran. It is therefore important that the West issues a strong message to Assad that the international community is prepared to use force when necessary, especially as diplomatic solutions to the conflict have proved so elusive.
The success of these strikes is yet to be seen and may prove minimal in a conflict which remains as intractable as ever. However, the narrow and limited strikes conducted by US, UK and French forces against Syrian government facilities are far less risky than what many commentators have suggested in recent days – as the air strikes were designed to minimise the risk of civilian casualties, as well as carefully planned to avoid provoking Russia or Iran. Furthermore, the support of the UK and France for the US-led attacks is significant; providing, as the Financial Times argues, evidence that there is a ‘community of nations ready to put up roadblocks in the way of Assad’s war crimes’.
That being said, the problematic nature of the UK’s involvement, specifically the failure of Theresa May to gain parliament’s approval, is largely indefensible and will taint what could have been a potential turning point in the Syrian conflict, especially from the UK’s perspective. There was a persuasive case for these strikes going ahead, and parliament should have heard and debated them; it is likely that May would have secured parliamentary approval for the strikes as well, as a large proportion of the Labour party would have defied the whip and voted with the government had a debate been held.
Nonetheless as The Observer editorial on Sunday argues, Theresa May has emerged from this episode with ‘more credit than those who argued, with apparent disregard for the dire situation in Syria, that military intervention in any circumstance is wrong’; it is morally and legally correct that when a red line is crossed, as in the case of chemical weapons, consequences should be inflicted against the aggressor, in defence of international law and human rights – and this is the case with Assad and the Syrian conflict.
NO: Bombs are not the way out of this mess
So as most of us probably know by now, the Syrian government led by Bashar Al-Assad carried out another chemical attack on its own people, this time in the city of Douma killing reportedly 48-85 people and injuring over 500 more. In response, the United States, France and the UK carried out a series of airstrikes against the Syrian regime under the objective ‘to alienate the extreme humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people by degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring further use’.
Now it is easy to see the case for these airstrikes. The attack in Douma was one of the worst of the Syrian civil war, a conflict that shows no sign of stopping since it started in 2011. We’ve become numb to the images of children crying, twitching as their bodies are being attacked by nerve agents such as sarin and these airstrikes targeted the very facilities where the chemical weapons used were made and deployed. It looks like we are doing something. On the surface, it seems this would stop Assad from using chemical weapons again. By taking military action like Trump did last year at the Shayrat airbase, Trump would seemingly be correcting the mistakes Obama made back in 2012 and 2013. There, Obama’s creation of a red line on this issue, his failure to seize all of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and his subsequent refusal to take action left Assad confident that he could continue to use such weapons against his own people. Between July 2012 to August 2016, multiple internationally-banned weapons in 400 attacks against Syrian citizens by the government according to a Human Rights Watch report.
However, since Trump took office and adopted a more hard-line approach, Assad has not stopped using chemical weapons. There have been 8 so far and the attack last week shows that strikes like the ones the US fired last year have done little to stop Assad. That attack targeted one airbase and on Saturday, three were targeted. This is so small it will do nothing to alter the trajectory of a war that has killed half a million people. With Russian support, a few missiles are hardly going to intimidate Assad and hinder his ability to use chemical weapons in the future. In anticipation of this week’s strike, most military aircraft were even evacuated from the military bases.
How can the forces that carried out the strike move forward? Well if they were to escalate their military involvement in Syria, it would likely go the same way as Iraq or Libya. In both cases, war ended up being a disaster both in terms of infrastructure and human lives. The Middle East is too complex and the process of rebuilding too long for a successful short-term military intervention – it took decades and a lot of US money in the Marshall Plan for Europe to recover after the Second World War.
Furthermore, it seems these strikes are a pretence to only make it look like we are taking action back home. In the larger picture of the war, they will do nothing. While we may temporarily hinder Assad’s ability to use sarin, he has turned more and more to chlorine as a chemical weapon which is incredibly easy to produce and just as deadly By not effectively targeting Assad’s military capabilities such as by implementing a no-fly zone, the US, UK, and France are leaving the Syrian people waiting for the next chemical attack. It also is probably no coincidence that Trump carried out these strikes, mere months after saying he wished to cease all military presence in Syria, just as fired FBI director James Comey is making the talk-show rounds to argue Trump is not a fit leader. And that’s before you get started on his multiple conflicts of interest in the Middle East.
This does not mean we should abandon the people of Syria. Within three years after America declared victory in Iraq, Islamic State (IS) controlled half of the country. A full military intervention or a slap on the wrist in the form of a missile strike isn’t going to help either. There is no broader strategy, no move to push Assad and rebel forces towards a compromise – strikes have been successful in the past such as in Bosnia in 1997 but without diplomatic pressure, there will be no change from Assad. He is a man who views the lives of men, women, and children as expendable in order to consolidate power. We can’t claim to be a humane country and sit by while people are gassed. What we need to do is use military and civilian personnel to help those on the ground – get people out of harm’s way, reunite where people have been separated and most of all, ensure that civilian groups are equipped with medical aid and food to give those who are injured. We need to stop needlessly risking Syrian lives and pursue aid efforts instead, we need to interact with Syrians on the ground rather than fire missiles from 100 miles away. This is what the Kurdish force, the Syrian Democratic Forces are doing in Eastern Syria where lands seized from IS are being rebuilt and demilitarised.
We have seen that time and time again regime change does not work and neither do limited military airstrikes. If we want to truly help the Syrian people, we may need to adopt the less-politically attractive option and focus on the long-term good of the Syrian people instead.
(Image courtesy of Politico)