On 4 April, three days before the latest chemical weapons attack in eastern Ghouta, the presidents of Iran, Turkey and Russia convened in Ankara for a tripartite summit to discuss the future of Syria. The meeting took place a year to the day after Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime dropped sarin on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, killing an estimated 74 people, but failed to incur any significant cost.
Nato member Turkey had once been the odd one out in this triumvirate and Recep Erdogan still has poor relations with Assad. But all three presidents now see their interests aligning as the hopeless UN-sponsored peace process stutters to a halt in Geneva. They are increasingly alienated from the West, have a substantive military presence on the ground within Syria, want to keep the Saudis and Israelis out, and regard themselves as the true power-brokers in the future settlement of the country.
The limited airstrikes against chemical weapons facilities on 13 April – conducted by the US, Britain and France – will not change that calculus. Iranian and Russian flags were prominent in a pro-regime celebration in Umayyad Square in Damascus that followed the next morning. President Assad’s office tweeted a short video of the Syrian leader nonchalantly strolling to work with his briefcase in hand. He was also pictured smiling warmly as he received a delegation of Russian parliamentarians. Russia continues to obstruct the UN-supported investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, confident in the knowledge that useful idiots in the West will dance to its tune.
Once President Trump had publicly committed the US to reprisals against the Syrian regime, a menu of options was discussed by his administration and its allies. Reports from Washington DC suggest that cooler heads in the Pentagon prevailed against the hyper-hawkish impulses of the new national security adviser, John Bolton, who favoured a more spectacular attack on the regime to underscore US military prowess. James Mattis, the more cautious defence secretary, outlined the potential fallout should the US and its allies endanger the large Russian presence in the country. As Mattis put it, “right now this is a one-time shot”.
If anything, Assad and his sponsors will arguably be more concerned by a surprise attack on a military base near Homs that took place two days before the joint Western action. This is presumed to have been conducted by the Israeli air force, targeting a facility known as T-4, where there is known to be an Iranian presence. The same facility was hit by the Israelis in February and as far back as November 2013, Israel also entered Syrian airspace to strike a weapons storage facility that was being used by another of its mortal enemies, Hezbollah. Setting aside the question of Western involvement, much dry tinder remains in these overlapping proxy wars.
Meanwhile, as the House of Commons held its latest set-piece debate on the rights and wrongs of intervention in Syria, a familiar cast of characters played out roles for which they have often rehearsed. The truth is that Western handwringing has become ever more inconsequential since 2013, with a growing disconnect between the sense of moral urgency and any real leverage to influence events on the ground.
The first of the major Western missteps was the rush to declare that “Assad must go” at the very onset of the conflict in 2011. This was based on the conviction – an entirely reasonable one it would prove – that the Syrian regime was the chief aggressor in the civil war. The problem was that it was an aspiration dressed up as a policy. Once the rise of Islamic State gave perfectly ghoulish form to the fears about what might come in Assad’s place, the climbdown was clumsily managed. It not only cheapened the language of Western diplomacy, but diluted the element of deterrence supposed to give it weight.
A more prudent strategy, with a potentially better humanitarian outcome, would have been to avoid the rush to unachievable absolutes. By keeping open a range of diplomatic options, there would have been more latitude to exercise a tourniquet approach against the regime, setting its actions within bounds that could realistically be policed. Opportunities came and went to take measures stopping short of any substantive military intervention, such as the establishment of a no-fly zone to provide some space for talks to occur.
In the collective response of the US, UK and France to the latest attack, it has at least been established that Western tolerance for the proliferation and normalisation of chemical weapons still has some bounds, with the immediate risk of a major escalation with Russia and Iran also avoided. Yet Trump’s crass boasts of “mission accomplished” – repeated twice in recent weeks with reference to the campaign against IS and the attack on the Syrian regime – confirm that we cannot expect any serious diplomatic initiative or strategy to follow.
Equally, some of those who set themselves up as Trump’s greatest critics replicate the same selective hearing and self-satisfied preening. In his new book, A Foreign Policy for the Left, the veteran American leftist Michael Walzer exposes the “substitutes for thought” and “automatic positions” by which “reflexive anti-imperialist politics” has turned some on the left into apologists for abhorrent groups and regimes. No matter what the circumstances, the current Labour leadership unfurls the same tattered script every time. These absolutist anti-interventionists – who view Western involvement as the greatest evil and imbibe any fable that fits their worldview – have a serious case to answer too.
This article appears in the 18 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge