Most reporting of the missile strikes on three chemical weapons establishments in Syria by the United States, France and the United Kingdom in the early hours of April 14th has been sealed from the wider context in which they took place. Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson said they were for the sake of “principle and civilised values”, while US President Donald Trump, in an eerie echo of George W Bush in 2004, tweeted ‘Mission Accomplished.’ Images of aircraft taking off and explosive pyrotechnics gave an impression of fierce military resolve. In fact, it was extremely limited, co-ordinated with the Russians, restrained and symbolic, thanks, it is said, to the restraining hand of US defence secretary James Mattis on the incontinence of Trump. The predicted slide into World War Three has – for the moment – been arrested. ‘Doing nothing’ was not an option; so they did next to nothing.
In Britain, hyperbole and self-righteousness mask the mildness of the response which was not about “regime change” or even altering the course of the civil war. It was to forestall a “risk of moral contamination”, our abhorrence of barbaric weaponry. The discussion was whether the strikes were “proportionate” and “effective in degrading Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s capacity to make chemical weapons. That it was done without parliament being recalled and with no parliamentary vote – a convention observed since the Iraq war – suggests to some that parliament has a decreasing role in Britain’s affairs. Opposition leader and president of UK's Labour party Jeremy Corbyn called into question the legality of the operation: the fact that it had been invoked as a “humanitarian” intervention by the government to prevent any further attacks like the one on Douma on April 7th may be rhetorically plausible, but doubts have been cast, both on its purpose and justification by what many have seen as hollow theatrics, the ‘pantomime’ of a display of might.
Prime Minister Theresa May held a press conference in a new setting, reminiscent of that usually conducted by the US to elevate political pronouncements: flanked by two union flags, she stood at a kind of lectern – almost a pulpit – to express her love for the people of Syria, and her determination not to let the “behaviour of Assad and his patrons” to go unpunished. We have heard much about what is “acceptable” and what will be and will not be “tolerated” by Britain, as though we have some magisterial power to regulate the conduct of the world – an unmistakably nostalgic throwback to the time when our word was law.
The “lessons of history”, so easily invoked by politicians of all persuasions are a figment, or if they exist, the spirit of such instruction escapes those for whom power, since they possess it, must be exercised, no matter at what cost to struggling, defenceless and bewildered peoples
The constant replay by the BBC of British Tornado jets taking off from Akrotiri in Cyprus, of Tomahawk missiles launched from a US navy destroyer in the Mediterranean and the roar of French Rafale jets, projected a return to hard military power by countries who now appear to have forfeited what, they have recently sought to project as, ‘soft power’ – Trump’s America-First policy, his determination to deter and deport migrants, Theresa May’s enthusiastic embrace of the anti-immigrant component of Brexit, and her determination to create a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal migrants, which has led to thousands of Caribbean citizens who came to the UK as children 50 or 60 years ago, suddenly threatened with expulsion, – all this represents a withdrawal from the culture of tolerance, generosity and a welcoming of global talent that the US and Britain had been at pains to display pre-Trump and pre-Brexit.
Cauldron of conflict
This show of military power perhaps plays well to domestic audiences in surreal theatres of war, but it is dangerously isolated, not only from sites where other kinds of barbarism have been regarded with complaisance – for instance, Rohingyas in Myanmar – or actually aided and abetted by Western arms sales – especially in the Yemen where hunger is also a weapon of war, – but also from the potential for the extension of conflict to other rising powers in the region, notably Iran, whose intervention in Syria has created for them a corridor through Syria to its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon; and Israel, which has made repeated sorties against Syrian military facilities, and which, with the appointment of the bellicose John Bolton as US' National Security Adviser, can see an increased possibility of alliance with the US against the agreement made with Iran to suspend its nuclear programme. In this endeavour, the “reforming” administration of Sunni Saudi Arabia, with its humane policy of beheadings, stoning and repression of women, together with the UAE, perceive also an opportunity to attain supremacy over their arch-rival, Shia Iran.
Turkey has also taken territory on the Syrian border in order to neutralise Kurds, allies of the USA, and who played such a significant part in the ousting of ISIS from Iraq and Syria. There is also a combustible combination of other forces, militias, insurgents, ‘non-State actors’, some of them of a malignant extremism, which can mount their own coups de theatre in the region, as well as the democratic opposition – that sadly elusive and diminished force - which, seven years ago, initiated the insurrection against the Assad regime in the first place.
Mocking words and 'history lessons'
We have heard much about “surgical strikes”, “targeted” hits, an imagery taken from the realm of healthcare, especially cancer-treatment, calculated to elevate these symbolic gestures of Western power as upholders of global morality. Undeterred by the growing ineffectiveness of the United Nations, we are seeing the logical outcome of a regression to that clash of ‘national interests’, which did so much to preserve peace in the world in the 1930s – and this not only in countries where overtly nationalistic or quasi-fascistic regimes now hold sway, but also in those which have tirelessly preached the inseparability of liberal democracy from the market economy, the sublime coupling of freedom and prosperity; words which have a mocking ring in the stricken Middle East, where the rhetoric is of “powder keg”, “tinder-box”, “knife-edge”, “hair-trigger”, which has made of peace and plenty a distant dream.
The “lessons of history”, so easily invoked by politicians of all persuasions are a figment, or if they exist, the spirit of such instruction escapes those for whom power, since they possess it, must be exercised, no matter at what cost to struggling, defenceless and bewildered peoples. If the Cold War is back with a vengeance, as the UN Secretary-General stated this week, it is so without even the restraints which inhibited the symmetrical threats between the former Soviet Union and the US, where a certain equilibrium was sustained by the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction”. In the contemporary world, even that grim mutuality has been excised from this formula of despair.
(Jeremy Seabrook is an author and columnist who lives in London. He has been described as ‘one of England’s most imaginative and creative writers reminiscent of George Orwell’ by The Guardian newspaper)