When countries engage in military action, some people can get very excited. The media often becomes gung-ho, forgetting that the institutions waffling on about “surgical strikes” and zero civilian casualties, have frequently misled them in the past. There is an obsession about “platforms” used, the number of missiles dropped, and from which ships and planes. There are fewer questions about the wisdom of such operations.
Politicians, often those in opposition parties, suddenly become silent and compliant in the name of the “national interest”.
Some leaders – Donald Trump, for instance – make claims that are patently ridiculous and which elide the historical record. Others, such as Theresa May, adopt a more in sorrow than in anger mode, and insist their actions were aimed solely at helping the people they’ve just bombed.
In short, people can lose their heads. Very often, literally.
The US has claimed the 105 cruise missiles that American, UK and French forces fired at three targets in Syria associated with the production, storage and use of chemical weapons, resulted in no civilian casualties. We have no way of independently confirming this, but an Associated Press report out of Damascus suggested that while a handful of people there were injured, there were no reported deaths.
At a Pentagon briefing on Saturday morning, officials insisted their strikes had set back President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons capability by several years. “I think we’ve dealt them a severe blow,” said Lt Gen Kenneth McKenzie.
In Damascus, reports suggest it did not appear that way. Hundreds gathered at landmark squares to honk horns and flash victory signs. “Good souls will not be humiliated,” Syria’s presidency tweeted after the air strikes began.
It is easy to be cynical about these latest Western strikes. It is easy to be cynical about the very prominent marketing of the weapons systems highlighted by the different governments (Raytheon’s Tomahawk cruise missiles by the Americans, Rafale jets by the French, and the European-produced Tornado fighter jets equipped with British, French and Italian produced “Storm Shadow” missiles by the British). The Canary reported that Raytheon’s share price had just struck a 20-year high.
And it is easy to point out that if Trump was so moved by the pictures of dead Syrian children at Douma, the location of the alleged chemical weapons attack currently being investigated by officials from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), he could alter his policy that suspended the Syria refugee programme and banned citizens from a bunch of countries (including Syria) from entering the US.
Rather, it was reported that the US has so far this year accepted just 11 refugees from Syria, about a tenth of the number of bombs it and its allies fired last night.
The truth of the matter is that dropping bombs on countries rarely does any good, especially in a situation as complex and muti-layered as Syria: a US-Russia proxy war that involves dozens of factions as well as the schism of Islam.
Indeed, those Pentagon briefers appeared to admit as much when they spoke today. No, they said, the US mission in Syria had not changed. It remained to confront and crush Isis, and was not to get rid of Assad.
And as the limited nature of the strikes revealed – there were approximately twice as many missiles fired as this time last year, but none anywhere close to Russian assets – the US knows these operations can only do so much.
It should be said that Trump, May and Emanuel Macron would have been criticised if they had done nothing. Eight years into a war that left 500,000 dead and displaced up to 12 million people, many rightly ask what the West is doing to help those being terrorised by Assad and his Russian backers.
Everyone knows the West has few good options, but it could try and hurt Syria more financially. Just yesterday, the British-French journalist Ben Judah outlined a way the West could increase the pain for the Syrian regime by hitting the Russian state banks that Assad has used for his financing structure.
In particular, he mentioned Russian state bank VTB, which faces US sanctions, and the way it could be targeted to try and force Assad to the negotiating table.
“VTB is a pillar of the Russian economy and Russia’s oligarchic structure: the smart threat from the West should not be theatrics on a terrain where Russia is in charge, but surprise sanctions where Russia is vulnerable,” he wrote.
“The line is simple: Assad’s Russian bankers should not be in London or New York. The message to Russia clear: if you want your client to bomb and gas civilians, VTB gets it.”
There is a lot less drama in enforcing financial sanctions than in launching military strikes, of course. The media doesn’t get to use footage of jets soaring off into the night from aircraft carriers, we don’t get to see plumes of smoke rising from foreign cities thousands of miles away.
And we don’t get to see the satellite images of the targets that have been hit – always with utter precision, remember – to ease our consciences about “minimising civilian casualties”.
The West ought to be ashamed of the way it has responded to the crisis in Syria. It should be ashamed of the hundreds of thousands killed on our watch, of the scores of fleeing refugees washing up on the beaches of the Mediterranean.
And we should be ashamed of our double standards in the Middle East, our relative silence over the killing of Palestinians by Israeli forces and our active support of Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemeni rebels that has resulted in a perhaps unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe.
So it’s about time we did something that helps. That is why dropping bombs is not the answer.
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