Two things stand out. One is that, under the Trump administration, the number of sorties flown against mainly Islamic State targets has increased sharply from just over 5,000 last September to nearly 8,000. The other is that only a few hundred of these have featured US allies.
On Tuesday, as Khan Sheikhun became the latest place name to be added to Syria’s map of horrors, I was sitting in the Beaux Arts splendour of the Senate buildings in Washington for an interview with John McCain, chairman of the armed service committee, former Republican presidential candidate and established hawk in the aviary of American security policy.
McCain was on forthright form, berating secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, for empty rhetoric and leaving the Syrians to sort out their own fate. “To make a statement that the Syrian people will determine their own future themselves is one of the most unusual depictions of the facts on the ground that I have ever heard of. What about the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, what about the Russians, what about Hezbollah?”
A few hours later, the ghastly story of poison gas attack on the opposition stronghold in Idlib province gave us pictures of human suffering at its most vile: the dying filmed foaming at the mouth, a tangle of lifeless bodies, dead babies in the arms of a father.
The likelihood that this happened at the behest of anyone other than Bashar al-Assad, with the support or acceptance of his Russian allies, is negligible. Even Moscow’s supple version of events got so tangled that it ended up with a yarn worthy of a Bourne film, about the “accidental” unleashing of gas bound for terrorists somewhere else.
The first place to look for those guilty of chemical gas attacks is to those who have used the method before, as Assad did on a massive scale on the outskirts of Damascus in 2013. Having failed to win the vicious civil war, even with the help of Hezbollah, Iran and Russia, he is desperate and foolish enough to do it. By Thursday, Washington’s response was what it should have been in 2013 – and would also have been had Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election, namely a hefty strike on airfields to discourage Assad from another gas attack.
A complicating factor is that this is the first major decision of international significance taken by the president to demonstrate a goal beyond self-interest or rhetorical fireworks. It convolutes an argument on intervention that has sprouted moral complexity and unintended consequences since Bill Clinton edged his way into the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts in the early late 1990s, followed, with less settled outcome, by the Blair-Bush era of bigger stakes interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Where these latter involvements were marked by too great a degree of self-belief by the purveyors of liberal intervention, the new variety presents the opposite conundrum. They run completely counter to Trump’s previously expressed convictions. “Policy whiplash” is the phrase doing the rounds in Washington, as the man who once declared that Syria was “not our problem” declared “no child of God” should have suffered a gas attack, with a rapid order of punitive airstrikes to follow.
If the Kremlin and Damascus were caught out by the swiftness of Washington’s response, so were those closer to home. So, instead of the daunting plod through a solemn “authorisation of military force” votes in Congress, the strikes happened with a very Trumpian crash, bang, wallop, directed from a “situation room” in Mar-a-Lago, a makeshift tent near the golf retreat from which America’s global interface is run. China’s President Xi showed up for his planned summit on trade, found he had stepped into another film entirely and kept a low profile.
The sight of Trump engaging in an interest other than his own eats away at the fundamentals of the philosophy of “America First” that swept him to the White House. Syria’s crisis is a running sore, abandoned by Barack Obama, but it is not a direct threat to the US. Reacting to it so forcefully runs counter to the general Trump doctrine that the country should focus inwardly, rather than end up bearing the world’s burdens.
Conspiracy mongers suggest that this has more to do with Trump turning on Russia, to shake off his opaque pre-election entanglements with the Kremlin. But that relationship was already heading for the deep freeze. More likely, the lord of misrule in Mar-a-Lago has done what he has done so often – confused friend and foe alike by acting purely on instinct.
Isolationists, such as Ukip’s Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall, both of whom vehemently oppose the airstrikes, are upset to find themselves dealing with a Clinton-Bush-Blair continuum, when they expected a withdrawal from world affairs. Trump’s Republican detractors, such as David Frum, slide quickly into convoluted critiques, which boil down to saying that Trump did not approach this decision in the manner of a more considered person. No surprise there. America’s liberal class, still in a reactive spasm to anything involving Trump, defaults to the view that even if they approve of the strikes in this case, there must be something wrong with them, which looks as morally convoluted as anything the president himself could muster.
In this confusion, the political spectrum bends and twists. In Britain, it leaves Farage and co ending up at the same place as Jeremy Corbyn, who is busy uttering platitudes about preferring a ceasefire to American bombings. The sole alternative put forward by the non-interventionists is to call on the atrophied muscle of the UN, which as Angela Merkel caustically noted, has a security council that had not even managed to muster a response in the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack. (Note: we should bank this as Merkel’s pitch for the UN secretary general job, should she fail to be re-elected in September.) Doubtless, the UN will arise from its torpor to tell us that it would be great if people did not slaughter their own populations but, with tiresome frequency, they do. That is why interventions still have their place, even if their thresholds have become higher since Iraq and Afghanistan. As Tom Watson and Yvette Cooper, both speaking well on this for non-Blairite middle Labour, concluded, there are good reasons to draw lines on indiscriminate chemical weapons attacks, even when deeper disagreements remain about how to handle Syria’s endgame.
But if Labour is, once again, divided on foreign policy, there are implications for Theresa May’s government. Britain finally committed to join airstrikes in 2015. The bitter arguments that led to the decision ended in a very small participation indeed (by the standards of British military capacity). We have become so wrapped up in our own arguments about intervention that we take ourselves a lot more seriously than anyone else.
Two things stand out. One is that, under the Trump administration, the number of sorties flown against mainly Islamic State targets has increased sharply from just over 5,000 last September to nearly 8,000. The other is that only a few hundred of these have featured US allies. Far from being sucked into a quagmire, a more realistic assessment of British involvement is that we are marginally relevant in such conflicts. The careful statements of “proportionality” by May and her defence secretary, Michael Fallon, are commentaries on the situation rather than meaningful acts of approval.
One way or another, there will be an end to the war in Syria and, in its messy, unsatisfactory way, last week’s events have brought it closer. What happens next matters a lot more than whether we approve of what has occurred in the last few days. When I asked a senior former British commander in Iraq what the jeopardy of the next crucial months in Syria entails, he said briskly: “A bugger’s muddle of powers tripping over each other – or America hitting the Russians by accident.” Dr Strangelove is never far from such scenarios. Last month, Russian aircraft mistakenly bombed Syrian Arab fighters who were being trained by the Americans, stationed only a couple of miles away. Unscheduled clashes, as the battle to retake Raqqa from Isis intensifies, constitute the bigger risk of escalation.
To build on the retributive strike, Washington will have to grind through the process of trying to establish a no-fly zone, against the will of an intransigent Vladimir Putin. Even Trump, the great inverter of norms, cannot escape these inevitabilities or the slog involved. To defeat Isis militarily and forestall further atrocities by a reckless Assad, America will have to commit to being part of some war-ending deal that means it remains involved in Syria.
The cry of the isolationist is always: “Stop the world, we want to get off”. It is a false promise and Khan Sheikhun shows us precisely why. We have no guarantee that Trump will get the next steps right, but the alternative of facilitating yet more outright war crimes by the failing Assad regime would have been far worse. That may be a modest claim for the battered doctrine of intervention against tyrants bearing sarin gas, but it is nonetheless right.
Anne McElvoy is senior editor at the Economist
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