The horrific images of the people exposed to toxic gas in Khan Sheikhun, Idlib have rightly inspired global revulsion and anger. We should not, however, allow our sympathy for the victims to be hijacked by those who seek to use human suffering for their own craven ends. The airstrikes ordered by the US president, Donald Trump, against Syria will do little to help those suffering. But in reality that wasn’t his aim. This is no more than gesture politics designed to bolster the image of “Brand Trump”.
Determining whether any use of force is legitimate means deciding whether it is legal, credibly justified and, of course, whether it will achieve its aims. The US airstrikes fail all three tests.
These airstrikes were very clearly illegal. This was not an act of self-defence and so Trump needed authorisation from the UN Security Council to proceed. The US did not receive this authorisation – and there is no provision in international law for unilateral military retribution.
Of course, the legality is in some respects a secondary issue; the UN’s laws governing the authorisation of force are hopelessly anachronistic and the prospects of the US being in any way punished for breaking international law in this instance are of course negligible. As was the case with respects to Kosovo, Iraq and every other instance when the US has used force illegally in the post-Cold war era, some token legal defence will be offered as rhetorical cover.
With respect to the credibility of the justifications offered for intervening, there is little to inspire confidence. Since the beginning of his presidential campaign, Trump has built his appeal on an open disdain for compassion. His habitual invocation of “America First” in response to questions about international responsibilities speaks to his overtly narrow foreign policy focus.
To date, Trump has explicitly disavowed a belief in intervening to take on foreign regimes. He has displayed hostility to victims of state-sponsored violence and willingness to consort with the perpetrators of mass atrocity crimes. The idea that Trump somehow underwent a profound Damascene conversion when presented with images of “beautiful babies” killed in Syria is an absurdity.
In terms of the impact on the ground, bombing this one air base at Shayrat will probably only temporarily inconvenience the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. But it will almost certainly have damaging repercussions in other respects.
For one, the US decision to undertake unilateral action has diminished the prospects of a coordinated resolution to the situation in Syria. The airstrikes have exacerbated divisions at the UN Security Council, which has long argued over how to manage Russia’s decision to act unilaterally in support of Assad in Syria.
Bombing one airstrip hardly constitutes a “robust” response so it’s difficult to imagine how this will in any way change Russia’s stance. Indeed, a half-hearted effort is in many respects worse than doing nothing – it highlights the limited nature of US commitment and thus suggests to Assad that the costs of incurring the US’s “wrath” are bearable.
Additionally, these airstrikes will embolden some of the anti-Assad forces. They may now think the US is “on their side” and step up their insurgency in the mistaken belief that they have secured a powerful ally. In that case, these airstrikes could therefore prolong this bloody conflict while doing little to alter the likelihood of an eventual Assad victory.
The politics of deflection
Since he assumed office, two of the motivations driving Trump have become very clear. First, he has a visceral hatred of his predecessor Barack Obama. Second, he is desperate to deflect attention away from his purported links with Russia. These airstrikes speak to both motivations.
Clearly Trump can now portray his response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria as “more robust” than his predecessor. Likewise, supposedly challenging Russia’s role in Syria by ordering these strikes will be used as evidence that Trump is not in fact subservient to the Kremlin. The airstrikes thus align with Trump’s persistent attempts to date to deflect attention away from his own lies, blunders and past indiscretions by lashing out wildly with little concern for the consequences. These airstrikes are, therefore, no more than gesture politics.
The people of Syria deserve to live in peace – for too long they have suffered terribly at the hands of those who have viewed them as little more than pawns. The last thing they need is yet another politician desperate to exploit them for his own selfish ends.