With the debate surrounding Theresa May’s decision to join France and the US in bombing a series of chemical warehouses and key targets, there has been arguably more fire and fury in the UK press than on the actual target zones. The left wing press (and, to be fair, the far right too) has of course questioned the strikes as another sign of neo-cons imposing some new world order, with Assad (an evil dictator whose crimes are numerous and on record) now a victim of a ‘false flag’.
A slightly more acceptable criticism comes in the form of people (i.e. Jeremy Corbyn, who was shouldered by a poll in which 66% of people agreed with him) who argue that Theresa May should have sought parliamentary approval before launching the strikes. Mr Corbyn on the BBC the day after the strikes even called for a war powers act, to constrain a future PM to a vote on military action.
The decline of the wartime PM
With the utmost of respect to Mr Corbyn (and I say this as a bit of lefty myself), such arguments about parliamentary approval are silly. Worse, it is potentially damaging to the UK’s ability to protect itself and project our power abroad. Declaring war with parliamentary approval is one thing. But stripping the democratically elected executive of executive powers in wartime, when speed, decisiveness and flexibility are vital in saving lives, is utterly ludicrous. Did Churchill call for a vote on D-Day? Should any PM be forced to reveal secret information and the blow element of surprise just to appease a few MP’s? All this when troops lives are on the line?
Leaving history aside, let us look at the diplomatic side of this. Does Mr Corbyn truly expect Macron and Trump to wait for May to get parliamentary approval, all whilst Assad’s chemical weapons are potentially being moved to new locations? We would be a laughing stock. David Cameron’s decision to hold a vote on bombing Syria in 2013 may now prove to be an error on par with Brexit. It set up this naive idea that parliament should vote on what is an executive decision. It prevented an early opportunity to stop Assad before he got Russian backing. A chance to end the violence earlier was missed and British international credibility was sapped. We looked reluctant and incapable of stopping tyrants. And the tyrants noticed.
A waste of time
And yet, for all this, Corbyn is right that bombing these chemical sites in Syria was wrong. But not due to concerns about parliamentary sovereignty, nor due the inherent (and let’s face it, very real) risks of intervention when Russia is so heavily involved. No, the UK and the US’s real error was that the bombings did not go far enough in 2013. Indeed, they were an expensive (at $1.5 million per missile fired) waste of time.
If the intent was to destroy President Assad’s ability to use Chemical weapons, the strikes were a failure. With all the talk in the press in the week between the awful attacks in Douma and the West’s strike, all the vital weaponry has doubtless been moved and hidden away. Assad himself was under no threat, while key Syrian personnel took refuge at Russian bases, knowing the West would not strike there. By all accounts, the people of Damascus and Assad are laughing at how minor the damage was – one resident said she ‘slept through the raid’. A tribute to the strikes surgical nature and desire to avoid bloodshed, yes. But also it’s laughable weakness.
But let’s be frank. The west is too weak and too scared to take on Assad and Putin seriously, so this strike was nothing more than an attempted warning shot to Assad. A desperate attempt to warn him off with threat of retaliation. If this was a new Red line as Trump’s spokesperson claimed, than it is a pathetic one. Assad and Russia now have a green light to use, abuse and wage war through both conventional and non-conventional means. All the while, safely in the knowledge that there will be no risk of war crime trials at the Hague, or regime change, nor strikes against their livelihood. Merely bombing a few buildings is the military equivalent of giving a slap on the wrist to a persistent schoolyard bully; weak and ineffective – transmitting all the wrong signals.
What should have been done is obvious. We should have launched a no fly zone in 2013, and worked to force Assad to the peace table through a persistent bombing campaign to destroy his military capability to hurt his own people. Corbyn is deluded if he thinks Assad can be brought to negotiations peacefully. Like Milosevic of Serbia in 1994 and 1999, Assad must be forced by military power to the table, and made to answer for his crimes. Like the successful aerial campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo, we could have seen an authoritarian military forced to stand down. Russia would have acceptance of the West’s dominance as a fait accompli. A negotiated peace could have occurred as the Syrian opposition would be empowered. And, eventually, Assad and his generals sent to the Hague for true justice to be served.
But that time has long past. The 2013 vote – a vote that by legal right should never have been called – failed, and Assad got away with it. Now, thousands of Russian and Iranian troops have poured into Syria, making any intervention too risky as it would risk a full on international conflict. And with Russia so invested now, any UN route is doomed. Any Russian on the security council is sure to veto any and all Western efforts to stop Assad.
In short, there is now nothing we as a nation can realistically do to help Syria, nor act to curb Assad’s chemical program. Not without risking a confrontation with Russian assets, and triggering WW3. As such, it would have been better to send in investigators and condemn Syria at the UN. Most of all, we could have saved millions – and, crucially, our credibility – by not blowing up a few buildings merely to make point. At least then, perhaps, we could have pretended that we could do more damage to Assad.
Now, however, that rabbit is out of the hat. We came, we saw. We blew up some empty warehouses. And now Assad is left to conquer. We would have been better, ultimately, to have just stayed at home.