IMPACT Article of the Month
It’s difficult to see footage of the aftermath of Tuesday morning’s chemical attack in north-western Syria and not be left with the thought that we have to act. We have to do something.
If, as is widely suspected, it was sarin used in these attacks, the victims will largely have reached their end through asphyxiation. The reason the nerve gas is so deadly is because it prevents the body controlling the muscles required for breathing: unable to breath, they suffocate. The result has been described as like having a knife of fire in your lungs. Victims were seen choking in the streets of Khan Sheikhoun, some were foaming at the mouth, all felt the pain of the deadly chemical. At least 87 people died this way on Tuesday, 27 were children.
Horrific, yet only the latest in a long line of atrocities that have plagued Syria in the six years since civil war broke out. In that time we have seen the rise and falling of a caliphate, the emergence of a proxy war, not to mention death, destruction, and displacement on an unimaginable scale. This has been a bloody war, but it’s a complex one. Despite the atrocities, western involvement has stayed at a drone’s length, due in no small part to the contemptable nature of many of the factions at play.
Instability bred from the initial violence created fertile soil required for the rise of violent Jihadism. Al-Nusra, formed from a branch of Al-Qaeda, has made significant gains in the region, and other rebel groups – with varying beliefs - have shown the same disregard for human life. But it was Islamic State who thrived in the uncertainty created by the civil war. Controlling a population of up to 8 million at the end of 2015 in eastern Syria and western Iraq, they become the new poster boys of international terrorism. Their violent expansion garnered worldwide media attention, with a propaganda arm keen to bring footage of executions and torture to smartphones the world over. Seemingly every week the news channels were filled with these videos, which always paused, teasingly, before the mortal moment. As viewers, we were left to imagine the fatal blow. Any and all of these gruesome videos a call for us to intervene.
And whilst IS have been grabbing the tabloid headlines with their unique and barbaric pursuit of bloodshed, the Syrian government regime they are fighting have served up something at least as bad. Use of torture, barrel bombs, execution of political prisoners and starvation of populations have all preceded this week’s chemical weapons attack – all of the above are war crimes, all of them have been carried out on Assad’s orders, all of them a cry for the west to do ‘something’.
Some 500,000 men, women and children have perished already in this brutal and unpredictable conflict. People are dying and will continue to die in horrifying ways at the hands of a leader who gives little salience to the importance of innocent lives. Many who run from him fall straight into the arms of Jihadi groups all too willing to execute those who do not follow the same doctrine of violent Wahhabism. And to pile misery on top of human misery, there is nothing that even resembles an ‘end’ in sight. That death toll will continue to tick, hour by godforsaken hour.
President Obama said the use of chemical weapons represented a ‘red line’ in the conflict, which would force the US to intervene; for many there are half a million red lines that have been crossed. Obama faced the reality of these weapons and failed to act. This week, President Trump stamped his authority as commander and chief, sidestepped the legislature and did act – decisively. By launching 59 Tomahawk missiles toward Assad he showed his willingness to do ‘something’ to end the conflict. Only, it was the wrong something.
Bombing to create peace has been as a paradoxical approach to foreign policy, yet it seems to be the only one the west recognises in the middle-east. Beyond the sadly inevitable increase in innocent casualties, the rush to arms in Syria is even more nonsensical. This week’s strike by the US targeted a Syrian airbase, from which the Assad government targets IS and Al-Nusra. By destroying Assad’s military, the US only serve to help the cause of these Jihadi groups by decreasing the airpower deployed against them – the reverse, of course, is also true. When they strike the Syrian government, it helps the Islamic State; when they strike IS, it helps the regime.
What becomes clear is that we have no dog in this fight; there’s no good guy strong enough to be a effective successor to the Assad. If Donald Trump doubles down on his intervention and over throws Assad, it is by no means likely that he will be replaced by a central government capable of holding together the fractious state, potentially creating further instability and with it the conditions for more extremist groups. Whilst the US have been assisting some ‘good’ rebel groups, there’s no assurance of their continued good intentions or ability to govern.
Despite this, despite the lack of a long-term plan, despite the absence of an effective successor, and despite the inevitable casualties his intervention will inflict, Mr Trump has done something – and that’s what we all seemed to crave. In an irony that couldn’t be lost on anyone, the President called on “all civilised nations… to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria”, whilst launching his own missiles into a war with an already saturated arsenal.
More distressingly, this military intervention coincides with his own ban on refugees from Syria claiming asylum in the United States. Caught in the middle we now have thousands of innocent civilians without a side to support, and with increasingly fewer places to run. By refusing to offer them a safe-haven, the US is failing to save lives; by dropping missiles he is actively ending them. Trump has trapped civilians between the rock of Assad and the hard place of IS, then he’s dropped tomahawks on them.
To hold the position Trump does on refugees whilst at the same time adding firepower to the conflict is absurd. He is creating a problem with one hand and deliberately making it worse with the other, fighting fire with gasoline. For those caught in the middle, they have nowhere to run save the chemical weapons of Assad and the beheadings of IS. Despite what his supporters might say, the president must understand that it is the push factor of continual war that has created the refugee crisis, rather than the pull of economic benefits.
If Mr Trump was a civilian in this chaos of Syria, would he run towards the chemical weapons of Assad, or the beheadings of IS? Or would he, as so many have already done, realise that there is nothing that resembles safety or security in Syria and flee. Flee to the refuge of the gulf, of Europe and of the west. All the President has done by banning asylum seekers is reduce the number of places the innocent can escape to. He doesn’t contribute to the death toll only when he drops bombs.
He didn’t need to do this: doing something does not mean rushing to military intervention. Sure, war is sexy, but the President’s actions have done nothing to save lives – theoretically the main goal of any humanitarian effort. Creating a safe passage for refugees to take them out of this cauldron won’t happen overnight, and it will be far from spectacular, but it will do something to slow the death toll. For so many, there is only wretchedness and fear for the future in Syria, their only hope is to leave. US action to get civilians out of the country, get them processed and get them relocated will be the most effective means by which he can end the slaughter and bloodshed.
Funding camps, creating safe routes out of the country, and welcoming with open arms the victims of this war will create systems where we might just be able to limit the blood shed from this terrible conflict. Firing missiles to reduce the death toll whilst refusing to give the innocent a place of refuge is an act of hypocrisy which will leave an indelible mark on his first term. Donald Trump has done ‘something’ here, but he has only added fuel to an out of control fire. Intervention is an undeniable duty of the United States in humanitarian crises, but the president needs to understand there is more subtlety there than tomahawks will allow him to express. He has done something which will not end the bloodshed in Syria, it will only escalate it. If he drops a rope rather than dropping missiles, he might just do ‘something’ to save lives.