CASUALTY figures for the US-led air strikes in Syria early on Saturday remain an issue of contention. We assume low, but neither side can be relied on to provide anything accurate. One clear casualty, however, is democracy. Paradoxically, without parliamentary involvement, the decision to contribute UK missiles — even if only eight — to Saturday’s attack was subject not to too little democratic control but too much — indeed, a far greater degree of democracy than is healthy. In choosing whether to join the response to the chemical attack in Douma, the Prime Minister and her close advisers calculated what the response might be from the British public, the US government (had we declined to participate), the Russian government, the Iranian government, and, to a degree, President Assad’s regime. With so many variable factors to consider, it is small wonder that a short-term option was chosen, and that little attention was given to the few voices calling for a cohesive strategy in the region.
The question which ought to be exercising every concerned parliamentarian is: What can we do to bring justice to the region and stop a war that has so far claimed between 400,000 and 500,000 lives and displaced almost 12 million Syrians? The answer is unlikely to be full-scale military involvement; but neither should it be nothing. Instead, the question asked by a Prime Minister acting on Parliament’s behalf was merely: What is the least we can do that will attract Assad’s attention without pulling us into the conflict or upsetting the Russians too much? This is politics, not diplomacy, and serves simply to highlight the repeated failure of Western governments to contribute anything intelligent or consistent to the slow, bloody crisis which is Syria.
The trouble with drawing red lines about a particular class of weapon is that it immediately implies that everything that falls this side of the line is legitimate. The weapon of choice of the Syrian military is the barrel bomb, which, when dropped from the air, has had a dreadful impact on rebel-held areas, where it kills and injures far more civilians than it does opposition fighters. Such bombs are responsible for far more deaths than the chemicals that are occasionally included in their payload.
The greater challenge to the West concerns the fate of the Kurds, against whom the Turkish government is currently waging war — the same Kurds who were deployed by the US in the front line against IS. If, or more likely when, President Assad manages to overrun the rebel-held areas near Damascus — areas that, like the Kurds, once believed that support would be forthcoming from the US and Europe — he will be free to turn his attention once more to the Kurdish regions to the north of the country. The message from Saturday’s attack is that, as long as he uses more discretion, he can kill and injure as many people as he likes.