The weekend’s bombing of Syria, led by the United States with the United Kingdom and France in tow, was intended to send a message: that we will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against civilians, and if diplomacy cannot prevent it then we will use force. Narrowly targeted airstrikes against chemical weapons facilities were a direct response to what was almost certainly the Assad regime’s chemical attack on the town of Douma, which left dozens dead. Parliament should have been consulted before the missiles were fired, but now that they have fallen we must hope their intended message gets through.
Unfortunately, there are good reasons to doubt it will. The strikes were calibrated with competing goals in mind. They had to be tough enough to deter Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons again, but not so tough that they would provoke Russia, which backs the Syrian regime, into retaliatory action that might escalate the conflict. This may prove too narrow a strategic window to be truly effective. With ample warning of a strike, the Syrian regime had plenty of time to move stockpiles and soldiers away from the target areas before the bombing started. Mr Assad maintains the capacity to use chemical weapons against his own people and the willingness to prop up his tyranny at the cost of any number of civilian lives. The weekend’s bombing was less a message than a gesture – and a gesture that fails in its effect sends the opposite message to that intended. That may have been the message received by both sides in the war: “The American strikes did not change anything for Syrians on the ground,” Osama Shoghari, an anti-government activist, said afterwards.
Last year the US bombed Syria in response to a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhun. The fact that they are doing the same thing again a year later shows that the message Mr Assad received from the last, limited attack was that he would not be seriously punished if he did it again. President Macron claimed over the weekend that “we had reached a point where these strikes were necessary to give back the [international] community some credibility”. Which raises the question: with whom did we have credibility before?
Mrs May’s claim that “we have not done this because President Trump asked us to do so. We have done it because we believe it was the right thing to do” is difficult to take seriously. Had Mr Trump not gone ahead, France and the UK would not have bombed Syria by themselves. This is essentially a US military operation. That leaves the UK and France pinning their hopes on the White House. We know that President Trump is impulsive, abrasive, crude and thin-skinned. The former FBI director, James Comey, has branded him “unethical, and untethered to the truth and institutional values”. We also know that Mr Trump is consumed by a variety of scandals at home that will leave him at best distracted and, at worst, seeking distraction. There are no easy options in Syria and the international community should be ashamed that our interventions, be they military or diplomatic, have failed to bring peace. Mr Trump is not the man to repair the consequences of earlier mistakes.
We hope Assad, Russia and Iran take this latest attack as proof that the international community is prepared to buttress its diplomacy with force when necessary, even as we fear that they won’t. There will not be a military solution to this conflict. And while a diplomatic solution has proved elusive, it is the only one that will stop the bloodshed.