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Four reasons we should be sceptical about the US-led attacks on Syria

Apr 19,2018 - Last updated at Apr 19,2018

The tripartite Anglo-American-French missile strikes against targets in Syria that aimed to punish the Syrian government and deter it from using chemical weapons should briefly stop the use of these barbaric instruments of war, as has happened previously. Despite this achievement, in the context of the wider, older and continuing American and European militarism in the Middle East, these attacks generate mixed feelings, because they fail four critical tests of efficacy, legitimacy, credibility and the wider Syrian war context.

They seem to be political acts that are isolated from the defining local and regional dynamics in Syria and the Middle East, as such they seem mainly to tell domestic audiences in the West that the three attacking powers value human life and international law more than do the Syrian and Russian governments, a questionable point, given how much killing these three states have done in the region for decades. The strikes’ consequences are likely to perpetuate the turmoil and new forms of violence that plague the region, which is the recurring legacy of such foreign military actions.

The April 14 attacks fail the efficacy test. Twenty years of non-stop US and other attacks against terror groups and militant governments since the 1998 missile strikes against Al Qaeda in Sudan and Afghanistan have not deterred Al Qaeda and other terrorists that now flourish. These groups only come to life in zones that have been ravaged by local and foreign military attacks, such as Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, most notably.

The many governments and militant forces that stand up to the United States and other foreign powers have steadily expanded in recent years. Ironically, but not surprisingly, Iranian, Russian, Hizbollah, and Turkish influence in Syria and other Arab lands has grown recently, in large part thanks to the consequences of the persistent militarism of the United States and other foreign and Arab powers who have tried to “roll back” such influence. Nikki Haley and her posse may be “locked and loaded”, as she says; if so, then Washington’s military performance in the Middle East since 1998 to defeat terror and roll back Iran has mostly shot itself in the foot, actually strengthening the foes it seeks to weaken.

The attacks also fail the legitimacy test because the UN and other international bodies that are authorised to verify who conducted the chemical attacks before any punitive measures are taken have not done their work, which was to start April 15 on the ground. The tripartite attackers cannot credibly claim legitimate self-defence because they were not under threat of imminent attack and were not attacked themselves, as happened in 9/11. Western powers who say they seek to uphold international law and norms by breaking or ignoring them have a serious legitimacy problem on their hands.

The attacks fail the credibility test because Western concerns about deaths by chemical weapons lose some of their acuity, for two reasons. The Syrian government and opposition forces have killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, often through inhuman means, such as barrel bombs and starvation sieges, which seem not to have generated much action by the tripartite attackers, even though their consequences are far greater. Their moral outrage at the deaths of innocent civilians is also clouded by the reality that the United States, France and the UK between them have been directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians in the Middle East over many decades of their direct military and political actions across the region, including in Yemen today.

The supreme irony here is that Great Britain was the power that introduced chemical weapons in their arsenal in the region around World War I, which they wanted to use if needed to put down an anti-colonial uprising in Iraq, but did not actually deploy them in the end. The Western attackers’ focus on averting more innocent deaths due to cruel means also would be more credible, for example, if the United States and UK stopped actively assisting the Saudi and Emirati war against Yemen, where tens of thousands suffer from cholera and thousands have died from this scourge, malnutrition and other impacts of the war.

All deaths by cruel means of war are abhorrent and must be stopped by the collective actions of all countries that value all human life equally; that will not happen by the occasional actions of a few countries that appear selective in their revulsion at human suffering and death, and episodic in their adherence to international law and norms.

The attacks, finally, fail the test of accounting for the wider realities of the war in Syria and its many regional and global linkages. In specific military operations like this, or the Anglo-American attack against Iraq in 2003, or even the recent two-year war against Daesh, short-term gains tend to wither away due to lack of linkages to a wider policy that addresses the underlying causes of the war and possible ways to end it. More comprehensive and realistic approaches are required to stop the fighting, stabilise Syria and redress other tensions that now surround it, including Kurdish, Iranian, Israeli, Turkish and Russian interests, for starters.

These attacks continue a Western tradition of nonstop warfare in the Arab region that started with Napoleon more than two centuries ago, and only seems to escalate further today with drones, Cruise missiles, electronic warfare and contracted mercenaries. The results are also the same: resistance from local powers, destruction of Middle Eastern societies, and the birth of radical forces and governments that defy the foreign attackers. This is even more dangerous now because of the direct military intervention in Syria of non-Western and regional powers, like Iran, Russia, Turkey, Israel and Hizbollah.

Only political and socio-economic solutions to the deteriorating human foundations of Arab states will end the violence, rid us of our long serving dictators and banned weapons of mass destruction, and achieve peace, equal rights, and prosperity for the bludgeoned people of the region.


Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow, adjunct professor of journalism and journalist in residence at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative. He can be followed @ramikhouri. Copyright ©2018 Rami G. Khouri – distributed by Agence Global

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