And after all that, no-one was killed and not much happened. Britain, France and the USA struck key positions of Bashar al-Assad and didn’t kill anyone. It was designed to convey a message, which it probably did, but mostly was just about symbolism and gestures.
It is a response perhaps many years too late now. Removing Assad – if that really is the aim, which if so would require a detailed and coherent wider strategy – feels simply a purpose of reminding ourselves that we are bound morally to honour our values; that there is a consequence for the mass murder of your civilians, where chemical agents are routinely used and rape and starvation are methods of war.
As someone in favour of some military action against Assad, I welcomed the strikes. For all that some may argue this set a dangerous precedent, particularly with Theresa May entirely bypassing Parliament – though she isn’t legally obliged to gather their collective consent – a more sinister precedent came in the past seven years of inaction at mounting evidence of genocide, ethnic cleansing and usage of chemical weapons.
Having said all that caution and realism should always be maintained where it concerns Donald Trump, and to be honest, the west in the Middle-East. Geopolitics dictates that imperial powers always seek advantages over each other. America would probably like nothing more than to replace Assad with a strongman authoritarian of their own. Secondly, Theresa May’s despair at the humanitarian suffering of the Syrians stacks poorly next to her rhetoric and record on taking in Syrian refugees. We have been appallingly low on empathy during the refugee crisis.
And what about the rebels themselves? Many have committed some unquestionable atrocities, and it can be argued whether the secular and democratic element of the Syrian resistance is still there. If Assad goes, who comes in? It’s racism of extremely low expectations to assume the only alternative to a genocidal dictator must be as bad but it’s also a legitimate concern that if Assad is removed, who power is left in the hands of is not an Islamist regime. It’s this post-Assad future that many leftists fear, that Syria will just become a puppet state of America and Saudi Arabia. It’s imperative that the people themselves, and not outside forces, decide this. This is an idealistic scenario, and it’s really doubtful as to whether this will happen.
All of this however can be true and it doesn’t change the gloomy political reality of Syria: there is a dictator who has slaughtered nearly half a million people. They will never accept him as their president. And no matter how Morning Star try to spin it, his legitimacy has been lost in the wake of his numerous crimes. For those who deem him victim of imperialism, their solidarity should be with his people and not the state institutions of Syria itself. Is sovereignty, essentially in a dictatorship rather than a democracy, more important protesting for than human rights?
I’m a socialist and I believe in the redistribution of powers. But the shift towards a multipolar world, one where America’s global hegemonic status wanes, shouldn’t be celebrated simply as an ends to itself; especially if USA’s power is counterbalanced by states possessing deeply imperialistic and autocratic features themselves. A world where China or Russia are the leading powers is arguably worse than one where USA is the leading power. The Americans are a genuinely wretched society, one where inequality is rife, corruption is high and its minorities are repressed. And yet it retains some semblance of liberty and democracy that allows someone like Bernie Sanders to mount a socialist campaign. This does not exist in somewhere like Russia and China.
Watching British anti-war protesters wave Russian flags in condemnation of the strikes was galling. These are people who didn’t lift a finger in protest when Russia levelled eastern Aleppo with bombs. Their solidarity has been with the imperialist invited by a dictator to bomb the Syrian children. And yet the left has willingly conceded a space for Putin to engage in his imperial nostalgia for the days of Soviet Union. He isn’t explicitly saying “make Russia great again” in speeches designed to evoke nationalist pride in the ugliest parts of their history like Trump but his actions and rhetoric otherwise reflect it.
As I’ve written before, the handling of Syria by Jeremy Corbyn has been disappointing. He signals to political solutions though Assad has adamantly rejected them where they involve him leaving power. Corbyn mentions UN resolutions as a means of stopping the conflict but the Russians have vetoed everything. He calls for investigations into source of chemical weapons but then ignores their findings where they have incriminated Assad. Rather than explicitly condemning Assad, he says he abhors violence on all sides, drawing some sort of equality in power between a police state and the rebels, and refuses to ever explicitly condemn Assad. It’s a legitimate accusation that his foreign policy is increasingly shaped by an appeasement of the Russian regime. Was Boris Johnson really wrong to call him a “useful idiot” for the Kremlin?
There are some in Labour reclaiming humanitarian intervention as a defining principle of Labour and it runs all the way from Clement Attlee to Tony Blair. They have bravely offered their voices in a party swamped by those who prefer inaction to the point of closing their eyes at the genocide of the Syrian people.