On Friday morning we woke to the news that President Trump sanctioned limited military action action against the Syrian regime. Was this the right thing to do? An immediate reaction is that it is gratifying to see the Assad government being punished for its use of chemical weapons against civilians. The gas attack this week killed over 70 people and was probably one of the worst single incidents of the six year crisis. Taking measures to curtail the Assad regime's capacity to kill its own citizens is justifiable. But to my mind, the most important questions that arise from Trump's decision are twofold. First and foremost, will US airstrikes save more lives? Second, will unilateral US action in Syria further contaminate the already much-denigrated notion of a shared global responsibility to protect civilians from atrocities?
While using chemical weapons breaches international law and should indeed be seen as a red line it is important to remember that the regime commits such violations on an almost daily basis. The regular use of barrel bombs in civilian areas, including schools and hospitals, is so frequent attacks often don't make the international press not to mention the political agenda. The Syrian state and its auxiliaries have been targeting civilians systematically for six years; they are responsible for over 90% of civilian deaths in Syria since 2011. Over half a million people have lost their lives and over half of the population is displaced. It is not a war where civilian deaths are collateral damage -it is a war being waged by a state against its civilians.
Thus the mere symbolism of taking action against Assad is important and has for the most part been lacking from global responses to Syria over the past half decade. However, targeted strikes on an airbase, while justifiable, will not prevent future atrocities if they are not accompanied by a comprehensive strategy that signals to Assad and his allies that the period of impunity is coming to an end.
Intervention in Libya stands as testament that with deeper engagement must come greater responsibility; if the US - and potentially its allies - are to engage in military action against the Syrian state there must be a commitment to prioritise civilian protection, to preventing future atrocities, and to acknowledging that a narrow military remit must be accompanied by a holistic humanitarian lens. NATO action in Benghazi certainly saved lives in the short term but without a view to the needs of the country the intervention failed to alleviate suffering for the majority of Libyans. Trump and his military colleagues must learn from these mistakes and engage with a broad coalition of experts from international development, peace building, and atrocity prevention sectors. The UK should do the same. If nothing else, US airstrikes have shaken up a miserable diplomatic status quo that was doing nothing for Syrians at risk; there is a now a window where some political movement is possible. The UK must take advantage of the opportunity to push the US administration to work collectively with international allies in developing a stronger position against Assad.
Unilateral action by any state against another -not to mention when it is the United States taking action- undermines efforts to build an international system that combats human rights violations collectively and with legitimacy. But deadlock at the UN Security Council has stymied the international community's protection of Syria's civilians and the regime has continued to massacre with impunity. Claims that US action is a violation of Syria's sovereignty fall short if you accept, as I do, that the Syrian regime has long forfeited its own legitimacy. While the Russian veto prevents a UN Security Resolution the UK should work with the US and France to seek legitimacy for deeper engagement in Syria from other member states. A rhetorical mandate from the General Assembly would carry moral weight and ensure that the rules based international order is not undermined.
That it is President Trump taking action will jar with many, particularly those with reservations regarding military intervention. What happens next will determine whether last night's strikes will alter the course of Syria's future but I am struck that Friday is April 7th - it marks the 23rd anniversary since the genocide in Rwanda began and serves as a reminder of the very high cost of doing nothing. We have seen those costs in Syria every day for six years. When I worked in Rwanda I saw what those consequences are twenty years later. There is no doubt that the international community will be judged for its timidity over Syria. History may well remember President Trump's decision last night as a critical juncture in Syria's tragedy. But without a comprehensive strategy to curtail Assad's crimes and bring peace, then stability, and in time justice to Syria one night of limited airstrikes will hang in history as an empty gesture that failed to save lives and hampered global efforts to build legitimate and lasting multilateral mechanisms for civilian protection and atrocity prevention.
Dr Kate Ferguson is director of research and policy, Protection Approaches