The Wages Of Non-Interventionism

Ultimately, it's still too early to tell whether Donald Trump's policy shift will have the desired effect, and the Syrian war may finally come to an end with a transfer of power of some sort. What we can see, however, are the wages of non-interventionism: chemical weapons; barrel bombs; and the rise of extremist groups.

In a debate with George Galloway in 2005, Christopher Hitchens laid out exactly what would have happened had the "anti-war" movement succeeded in blocking each intervention in the preceding 15 years: Saddam Hussein's Iraq would have abolished Kuwait; Bosnia and Kosovo would have been ethnically cleansed and annexed to Milosevic's Serbia; the Taliban would still be in power in Afghanistan; and of course Saddam Hussein would still be in charge of Iraq. He concluded, quite rightly, that any movement with such a record should be extremely modest. But the failures of the intervention in Iraq - from the unreliable intelligence on which it was based, to its effects on the war in Afghanistan - dispelled any such conclusion of modesty, and now Syria is suffering the consequences.

On Tuesday, the Assad regime launched another chemical weapons attack on rebel-held Khan Sheikhoun, which has claimed dozens of lives and will undoubtedly claim more in the coming days. Reports from the ground confirmed that the attack was launched from an aircraft, and autopsies from both Turkey and the WHO further confirmed the Syrian regime as the most likely culprit. Moreover, the Syrian government's version of events - that rebels were stockpiling chemical weapons at the strike location - makes little to no sense. Firstly, the attack was reported to have come from an aircraft - which only the Syrian government has. Secondly, sarin would have been destroyed rather than released by an airstrike. Thirdly, and most importantly, even if the government's version of events was credible, if the government actually cared about the potential victims of chemical weapons, the last thing it would do would be launch a strike that would unleash them on civilians rather than attempt to secure them - still less proceed to bomb hospitals where victims were being treated.

In the wake of yet another atrocity in Syria, there was little reason to believe that anything concrete would be done in retaliation for the use of internationally prohibited weapons. The most likely scenario appeared to be that strong words would be exchanged at the conference on the issue, but Russia would not stop backing Assad and the US would refuse to do anything to protect civilians. In such circumstances, I would normally welcome unconditionally the news that President Trump launched missile strikes at Syria in response. While a shift from the policy of doctrinaire non-interventionism, the very policy which enabled the indiscriminate use of barrel bombs; destruction of East Aleppo; and indeed chemical weapon use, is welcome it is a simple fact that the optimal window for intervention has already closed. With Assad enjoying the direct protection of Russian forces, President Trump will need to ensure that the latter are not directly attacked to avoid an escalation. Yet there is also little reason to believe that Russia will want to escalate; in the circumstances, their response has been measured - merely suspending an agreement designed to avoid air collisions, and there is ultimately little reason to believe that either of the two powers will engage each other directly, still less that it would escalate uncontrollably into a nuclear war (the idea that a skirmish between powers would automatically trigger such a war being one idea that needs firmly put to bed).

Hillary Benn is right to remark that the US's response should hopefully deter any further use of chemical weapons. Indeed, t might also discourage the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and the use of barrel bombs if Trump holds his ground. It could even provide an incentive for all parties to renew ceasefires and get back to the negotiating table (in such a context, the announcement that the US backs a future Syria free of Assad is also welcome) - but not before hundreds of thousands of people were killed; chemical weapons used with impunity; and the rise of ISIS, in large part thanks to the Syria policy of his predecessor.

In 2013, Barack Obama proclaimed that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a red line. Within days, we found out that it wasn't - that Assad would enjoy the freedom to inflict whatever suffering through whatever weapons on civilians as he wished, when both the Obama administration and Parliament refused to back air strikes in Syria in response. Yet at the time the situation on the ground was very different: Assad's forces were on the defensive, there was no talk of Russian intervention, and nor had anyone heard of ISIS. The enforcement of the chemical weapons "red line" then could have already given the people of Syria a new Syria free of Assad - who, lest we forget, has caused by far the most casualties, and is responsible for the creation of the lion's share of refugees and displaced persons from the conflict - and ISIS, a group which was only able to rise because they filled a vacuum which nobody else was prepared to.

And in the wake of the West's intervention in Libya, which succeeded in preventing the massacre of the people of Benghazi, to say nothing of the fate which would have befallen the people of Misrata who were encircled and starved, I and other interventionists dared hope that things would be different - that when Cameron stated that it would be indefensible to go to war arguably over oil but not to help people being killed for the freedoms we take for granted, that he would be able to carry his party with him. But we were wrong; instead, for the first time, the counsel of Stop the War (the main organiser of the "Hands Off Syria" protest) was listened to instead, with the disastrous results we see today. But for Trump's change of policy, the West risked sending out a message to every tyrant now and in the future that mass murder and the use of weapons of mass destruction in the face of demands for basic freedoms would be ignored. The consequences of such a message do not bear contemplating.

Yet the "anti-war" movement, or Stop the War anyways, is far from neutral. The fact that people at the front of the latter's Syria protest were waving the flag of Assad must surely have been a simple coincidence, as must have been that the group had compared the latter to Churchill in an article since deleted. Tellingly, while Stop the War are already planning to protest Trump's actions (in a "no war in Syria" protest - as if a war hasn't been going on for years), there have still been no protests at the Russian embassy against Russian intervention, or indeed any protests against Assad. Instead, we have even seen ISIS compared to the International Brigades. It seems blatantly clear that StW, and the swathes of the far-left who told us that any action in Syria would cause World War Three - an assertion we now know to be untrue - do not oppose all war, but only war instigated by the West, as if the killing of hundreds of thousands of people is somehow preferable to a much smaller number of accidental civilian casualties caused by Western intervention - the aim of which is precisely to prevent much greater, indiscriminate killings and (in the case of Bosnia) genocide.

Ultimately, it's still too early to tell whether Donald Trump's policy shift will have the desired effect, and the Syrian war may finally come to an end with a transfer of power of some sort. What we can see, however, are the wages of non-interventionism: chemical weapons; barrel bombs; and the rise of extremist groups. If one good consequence can come from the failed Syria policy of Obama, it is that the cry of "but Iraq" from so-called "anti-imperialists" may lose its potency when the alternative, worse, state of affairs to intervention in the face of cries for aid as in Syria and Libya are plain for all to see.

This will be little comfort to the Syrian dead.


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