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11 April 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:24pm

Futile air strikes on Syria won’t defeat Assad and Putin

The West should impose punitive economic and diplomatic measures on Russia and Iran, and back a secular-led military opposition.

By Paul Mason

Kilometres matter. If you’ve been anywhere near war, you will know that one kilometre away is better than 100 metres away. Two kilometres is much better than one. Ten kilometres away and your can smoke a shisha pipe while your shaking hands stroke the stray cats, who also understand the power of distance.

Since the Iraq war, military strategists on all sides have reached for the safety of distance. If Britain joins US-led strikes on the Assad regime in response to the gas attack on Douma, it will probably fire Storm Shadow missiles, which can cruise to a target up to 560km away from the aircraft that releases them.

On the ground in Syria, Russian bases will be protected by S-400 missiles, which can shoot down incoming missiles or aircraft at a range of 400km away, travelling at 5km per second. If this seems to you a long way from the images of retching children, writhing bodies and dead eyes you saw coming out of Douma on Twitter, that is no accident. Human war and machine war are moving along divergent paths.

The purpose of Vladimir Putin’s S-400 system is to kill aeroplanes and other missiles. The purpose of dropping a barrel of chlorine on some children in Douma is to terrify other people into submission; to demonstrate your absolute disregard for the rules of war; to send a message to everybody on earth that the multilateral systems designed to prevent war crimes, genocide and torture are defunct.

To defeat Assad, and prevent the further collapse of the global order, long-range missiles are no good. Knowing this, Donald Trump and his national security adviser John Bolton will probably fire a lot of them. No. To defeat Assad you would have to engage in the kind of warfare America did in Iraq, going from house to house in the dark, killing suspected supporters of al-Qaeda, dragging their children and elderly into the dark by flashlight.

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You would have to bomb what’s left of Syria until it looked like what’s left of Gaza. And you would have to do it knowing that into the chaos you create, would move exactly the kind of jihadi groups we are trying to rid the world of.

That’s why I am against Britain joining a military strike on Assad’s Syria. It’s an inadequate and cynical gesture designed for domestic consumption by governments whose own legitimacy is being eroded. The idea that it will save significant numbers of lives is rubbish, and known to be rubbish, by the politicians and retired military people advocating it.

What would, in the short-term, save lives in Eastern Ghouta would be to place massive economic and diplomatic pressure on Russia and Iran, who are the real powers controlling Assad’s war in Syria; and to back or re-create a secular-led military opposition on the ground, starting with the Kurds of Rojava. But that is not going to happen.

First, there is no stomach for regime change wars in the West. For the populations of democratic countries, Iraq was not “just another war”. Tony Blair and David Miliband seem capable of shrugging it off, their supporters inside Labour endlessly bemused at other people’s determination to remember it. But millions of peaceful and humanitarian voters don’t want to forget Iraq. They want to make sure they never get fooled again.

Second, because nobody can see an endgame. Iraq was based on the illusion that the US was so powerful that it could shape the world in an unprecedented way; and that “the market” could solve the problems of reconstructing a post-Ba’athist society. In fact America’s unipolar power has collapsed, and the market-based governance of Iraq produced chaos.

We are now in an era of “great power” politics played by presidents for life: that is, where major nuclear-armed countries are carving out spheres of influence, creating swathes of territory where international law does not apply, and permanent alliance systems that undermine the relevance of the UN Security Council.

Neither Barack Obama nor Donald Trump had an answer to this problem; nor did they have the honesty to level with the American people that the old answers – the cruise missile and the Arleigh Burke destroyer – had ceased to work. So now a third obstacle to Western intervention has appeared: the manipulation of public opinion by the Kremlin, using all the tools Google, Facebook and Twitter are prepared to hand to it.

Despite the availability of public sources showing it is likely that a regime Mi-8 helicopter dropped a gas container onto a specific building, there are well-meaning people prepared to share the opinion that this was a “false flag”, staged by jihadis, to pull the West into the war. The fact that so many people are prepared to clutch at false flag theories is, for Western democracies, a sign of how effective Vladimir Putin’s global strategy has been.

For the left, the dangers should be obvious, but too many people are being wilfully blind to them. If Trump strikes a few command bunkers in Syria, and the left  goes on the streets shouting “Hands Off Syria” then no matter what those words mean mean for you, for Assad, Putin and Rouhani, they mean hands off the gas bombers and the torturers.

Meanwhile, MPs like James Cleverly, and ministers like Gavin Williamson and Sajid Javid, have already drafted their speeches labelling those who oppose the missile strikes on Assad as fascists, traitors and dupes. So we must make especially clear that our opposition to military action in this case is about defending law and proportionality, not crank theories spread by the Kremlin.

A left foreign policy and defence strategy for Britain in a disintegrating global order has to start from the principle of defending human rights and observing international law and building capacity for democratic opposition in the countries stirring up conflict. The alternatives to a shower of guided missiles require more than bravado and rhetoric.

To bring the perpetrators of the war crime in Douma to justice means unblocking the multilateral system at the UN and the International Criminal Court. That in turn means persuading the Russian people to elect a government that does not sanction torture, chemical weapons attack, the assassination of opponents and the conquest of territory by brute force.

The first condition of achieving that is to stop doing these things ourselves: stop backing Saudi Arabia in Yemen; stop backing Israel as its snipers shoot down unarmed civilians in Gaza.

The second condition is that we are prepared to hit Putin where it will really hurt: arrest and deport his main associates in every Western country; seize their property; make it an offence for law, accountancy and financial management firms to work for Russian entities. And shut off the international SWIFT payments system to Russia.

Yes, that means enforcing economic autarky on Russia and its allies, and collapsing its banks. But if you actually want to change their behaviour, that’s what you would need to do.

The third condition is that, within the bounds set by our rule of law, we wage a political fight against Putin and his United Russia Party: we support the Russian NGOs, political parties and cultural groups prepared to resist mafia rule; we extend BBC and other Western media’s foreign language services not just to Russia and Ukraine but to Greece, Turkey, Hungary and the Balkans. We build capacity for democratic institutions across the whole of Eurasia.

These three things: tough economic sanctions, a culture war against kleptocratic elites and the end of support for rival kleptocrats would not, on their own, lead to immediate peace and harmony. They would, for a time, leave the world divided into sealed economic trading blocs, as in the 1930s

But if you want to throw words around like fascism and appeasement, you must also be prepared to contemplate doing what democracies in the 1930s did when they decided to stop appeasing fascism. Why won’t the western elites do this? First, because they are thoroughly penetrated by Russian money and allegiances to pro-Kremlin oligarchs. That’s where playing tennis with a Putin-crony for £160,000 gets you as foreign secretary.

Next, because they prefer to play at war with standoff weapons: machines vs machines, radars vs jammers – for the age-old reason that lucrative jobs in the companies that make these weapons await them once they retire from politics.

Finally, because the institutions the West has created, supposedly to insure against being held hostage by dictators and uphold international law, are not strong enough. The European Union is paralysed by fear of far-right political forces that Putin himself has stirred up.

As with Mordor, no detail escapes the unseeing eye: Sweden buys an anti-aircraft missile from the US instead of one made in France? The pro-Putin far-right party, the Sweden Democrats are on the case, calling for a cheaper option, while Sputnik, the pro-Moscow news agency, reports their every word.

NATO is also a strategically weakened entity. The idea that the Greeks will lift a finger to help Estonia, whose political leaders crowed as the European Central Bank and the Commission trampled on Greek democracy in 2015? Forget it. As for Germany, with all sides of mainstream politics opposed to higher military spending, and some politicians overtly sympathetic to Russian diplomatic aims, it is not likely to deliver on any request to invoke Article 5.

As I’m writing this, the Russian ambassador to Lebanon has warned that, if the US attacks Syria, Russia will use its long-range missiles to shoot down not only the incoming missiles but to attack the planes and ships that fire them. Trump has tweeted in response: “Get ready Russia,  because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”

This is a man currently under investigation for collusion with Russia. Does going to war alongside forces he is commander in chief of not make even the armchair missile commanders of the Tory party and the Labour right even slightly uneasy?

Trump is a man who has fantasised for his entire adult life about using nuclear weapons, and is insouciant about the loss of civilian life, even in his own country, let alone abroad.

How could we in the West have stopped last week’s atrocity in Douma? By not looting Russia in the 1990s; by listening to Putin when he warned he was going to dismantle the global order and reacting with seriousness instead of scorn.

We should have strengthened the defences of democratic countries against the hybrid warfare he is waging. We should have supported the secular resistance in Syria, not the jihadis who came to prominence because we allowed barbaric regimes like Saudi Arabia to call the shots on who got weapons and who did not.

The closer you’ve been to war, the more you ask yourself whether there are things you can do to stop it happening, even when there is justification for it. But that’s not how Theresa May is thinking. For May, the missile strikes on Assad will be yet another useful weapon to attack Labour with.

First Corbyn was slandered as a Czech spy, then a Putin stooge – for asking what turned out to be a laser-accurate question about the origin of the substance that poisoned the Skripals. Then he was smeared as an anti-Semite. Now he, and those of us who support him in resisting the unilateral strikes on Syria, will be labelled as Assad stooges on top of that.

Under May, the Tory party has become filthier than at any time since the early Thatcher years. Shacked up with the sectarian DUP in Ireland, sending messages of support to the anti-Semitic Fidesz party in Hungary, discussing how to “spin” the Grenfell fire in a meeting just yards from where it happened. Lacking any other principle, the principle they have adopted is to delegitimise the Labour Party as a democratic opposition.

If the US strikes Assad, the House of Commons should vote against participation, and should refuse to sanction any action taken retrospectively. Labour and the other opposition parties should go on asking for evidence, due process and action under international law, both on Douma and on the Skripal case. Though weakened, the multilateral institutions of the world are not dead, so we should go on trying to use them to bring the Skripal’s attempted killers and the people who dropped gas on Douma to justice.

But strategically what’s going to end the regimes of Putin, Assad and Rouhani is the one event the west won’t countenance: their political overthrow by secular, democratic and pro-social justice movements. That’s my weapon of choice against the perpetrators of the Douma attack.

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