Launching missiles was the easy bit. Now what about Syria's future?

 smh.com.au  4/17/2018 4:19:00 AM 
Syrian authorities distribute bread, vegetables and pasta to Douma residents.

Syrian authorities distribute bread, vegetables and pasta to Douma residents.

There's a cartoon doing the rounds online in Idlib, one of Syria's last rebel strongholds. It depicts a huge mountain of skulls, all white except for one, which is glowing bright yellow from the effects of a chemical weapon attack. A spindly Uncle Sam is reaching into the pile to pluck out the yellow skull, outraged and shocked, while ignoring all the skulls around it.

A signature on the cartoon indicates it's from last year, but it could just as well have been drawn today. "Mission accomplished," boasted Donald Trump, after Saturday morning's air strikes. Britain, said Theresa May, had learnt "the lesson of history" and was taking a stand on "the global rules and standards that keep us safe". This will ring rather hollow in Syria, where at least 400,000 people have died and 13 million been displaced by its civil war so far. The truth is that, despite these air strikes, the war is getting worse, not better, and the ferocious debate we are having in this country is nothing but a sideshow.

For what it's worth, Mrs May did the right thing - and it was her decision, and not Parliament's, to take. Firstly, the strikes have at least imposed some cost on Bashar Al-Assad for one element of his brutality and will make him think twice about deploying chemical weapons. Second, they expressed the West's moral disgust with his regime. Third, they were a warning shot to all of the powers involved in a proxy war in Syria that the West isn't an entirely spent force and can be roused to action in certain circumstances. Fourth, they were a nod to the idea that international norms matter, even if their reality is deeply flawed. From the reports so far, no one died in the operation to achieve all of these outcomes. "Mission accomplished," you might say.

Zoom out from the fevered debate on our TV screens, however, and you'll see what an incredibly modest mission this was. In strategic terms it was almost irrelevant, and was designed to be so. In reality, the strikes sent two messages. The first was the one intended by our governments. The second, alluded to by the cartoon skulls, is that Western voters have lost faith in military intervention. We no longer believe we have any ability to solve humanitarian crises, and we will not allow our governments to become deeply entangled in any conflict so far outside our territory. This is as true in Syria as it is in Ukraine.

« Go back