Commentary on the airstrikes which targeted the Assad regime early morning on April 14 has been, from right-wing to left-leaning British news outlets, overwhelmingly negative. The arguments against the strike include accusations that Britain, France and the United States were engaged in either virtue signalling, imperialism, unlawful use of executive power or unhelpful, costly intervention into an enduring civil war. Most have commented that the strikes seem random and imprudent.
It is evident that in firing those 105 missiles, the three Western powers were doing so without a long-term, defined strategy. They did not have a set of goals for the end of the long and bloody Syrian civil war or the ousting of the murderous Assad regime. But did they need any?
The entire meaning of the Syrian airstrikes has been lost in the broadness with which they have been described. In reality, the strikes were not just another missile launch into the abyss of this calamitous conflict. The aims of the airstrikes were limited; conducted specifically to target Syria’s chemical weapons storage facilities in the aftermath of a particularly gruesome chemical weapons attack on the April 7 in Douma, carried out by the Assad regime against innocent civilians. Both the UK and the U.S. linked the airstrike directly to the tangible aversion of further ‘humanitarian catastrophe’. Macron justified the strike by explaining that the international community cannot continue to tolerate the normalisation of chemical weapons. The airstrikes were designed to specifically target these facilities in order to both prevent and deter their use in further attacks against civilians. They were not a declaration of the beginning of a ceaseless intervention into the Syrian conflict.
To the horror and pain of soldiers on the battlefields of the First World War, chemical weapons were first used in 1915 by German forces. Since then, they have been rightfully outlawed from use in warfare through multilateral treaties such as the Chemical Weapons Convention. However, their frequent use has continued to mark the Syrian conflict. Obama reneged on his commitment to a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, which he promised he would enforce with some form of intervention against the regime. Inaction and indecision on the part of the West such as this has only encouraged the continuation of attacks with both chlorine gas and sarin nerve agent. Firing missiles will not bring an end to the political crisis overall, or the suffering of millions of Syrians, including moderate rebels who have fought to overthrow the authoritarian Assad regime. However, further inaction will lead to a decline in the credibility of the West which make international norms in warfare, such as prohibitions against chemical weapons, entirely impotent. In a protest organised by Stop the War against the airstrikes this Monday, one woman defended Assad’s regime from attack because ‘he’s a doctor’. Arguably, the use of weapons of mass destruction means you forfeit your credibility as a medical practitioner. Britain, France and the U.S. were right to carry out the strikes because Assad cannot continue to murder civilians with impunity. When moments such as this arise for a targeted strike against a murderous regime, with specific aims that can tangibly reduce human suffering, the West has a moral imperative to act.