One of the results of the cynical manipulation of truth and fact by successive governments is that it becomes harder to trust anything they say subsequently. So, whilst I’m inclined to believe that the deaths and injuries caused by chemical weapons in Syria last week were the result of the intentional use of those weapons by the Syrian government forces, I don’t feel able to rule out entirely the possibility that the Russians and Syrians might be telling the truth when they say that it was actually the result of an attack on a weapons store. Perhaps those governments supporting the US missile strikes in response have more substantive evidence than they’ve released to date; perhaps not. But two aspects of the response leave me with an uneasy feeling, even accepting that events were as they have been presented.
The first is whether the response was the right one. I understand the frustration of external parties who see chemical weapons being used in direct breach of international treaties and agreements and want to stop it happening again. But taking unilateral military action against another country is also contrary to international law. And it can’t turn the clock back; it can’t change what happened. The justification for it can only be based on an assumption that it will in some way prevent a repetition; otherwise it’s doing ‘something’ because that is all that can be done. Will it deter Assad? I don’t know – and neither does anyone else. What we do now know is that it ramps up the possibility of direct military confrontation between the two most heavily-armed states in the world; and that’s never a particularly brilliant idea.
The second response is to question the underlying moralising of those involved. Which is the more important fact in Syria today – that adults and children alike are being maimed and killed on a daily basis, or that some of them are being killed by a particularly nasty form of weaponry? The response to the use of chemical weapons seems to be suggesting that the latter is the more important; or to put it another way, the method used to kill and injure is more important than the fact of the killing and injuring. What is the message delivered to Assad by the missile strike – that he can carry on bombing and shooting but must not use chemicals? That may not be the intention of the message, but it looks like the probable effect.I don’t have a simple and ready answer to the conflict in Syria; but then that hardly makes me unique. I’m certain, though, that there will eventually have to be a negotiated peace; there invariably is. All those involved know that as well, but they’re carrying on with the killing in order to try and put themselves in the best position before they start talking seriously. The question our government should be asking is not “what does Trump want us to say?” but “does adding to the killing and destruction help move us towards peace?” Mere frustration at not being able to do anything else isn’t enough to justify adding to the destruction. And it will never be enough.