Nobody would argue that the gas attack last week on the Syrian town of Khan Sheykhoun was anything but horrific and inhumane. But it’s hard to see how Trump’s recent missile strikes on an airfield of the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad will do anything but aggravate an already intractable situation. Worse, the Trudeau government’s acquiescence to Trump’s belligerence weakens Canada’s position as a country, as well as the checks and balances of the UN system.
Some proponents of Trump’s strike argue that it will handicap Assad’s ability to carry out more strikes. Others argue that the strike has symbolic value, demonstrating to Assad and his opponents that the international community is watching and has the will to act. But far more sustained intervention will be required before there will be any real dent in Assad’s military capability, as evidenced by yet another strike on Khan Sheykhoun on Saturday.
Violating international law
In the meantime, Trump has violated all manner of norms and international law in unilaterally attacking Syrian government positions. He failed to seek US Congressional approval for the strike, despite arguing in 2013 that Obama would have required it for a similar strike. More importantly, the strike had no justification under international law, as the UN Security Council had not authorized it, and the United States could not claim the justification of self-defence. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s attempt to justify the attack under the language of a 2013 resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons also fails, as the resolution does not explicitly authorize military intervention.
In response to the strikes, Russia warned that Trump had brought their two countries “within an inch” of armed conflict. But Trump’s intervention was not without supporters. Saudi Arabia, with its own questionable military entanglements, congratulated Trump on the strike. Britain and Australia also expressed strong support for it. In Canada, interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose defended the attack, arguing that the world “cannot sit idly by while deadly nerve toxins are unleashed on innocent civilians.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also willingly gave his government’s support for “limited and focused action to degrade the Assad regime’s ability to launch chemical weapons attacks.”
But it’s difficult not to be cynical about the selective nature of this intervention and its supporters. Trump’s statement justifying the strike talked of “beautiful babies” who were “cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.” Yet critics point out the hypocrisy of this newfound outrage, given that more than 55,000 children have died during Syria’s six-year civil war, the vast majority of them killed by the al-Assad regime. With his Muslim ban and public stances, the Trump administration has demonstrated zero sympathy for Syrians fleeing the carnage of their civil war — much like the Harper government through 2015. The apparent indifference to incidents like the U.S. airstrike last month in Mosul, which left 200 civilians dead, also undermines the sincerity of the supporters of this strike.
No plan to end the war
International outrage against both Russia and the Syrian government for what happened in Khan Sheykhoun is appropriate. All of Syria’s chemical weapons were to have been destroyed under the 2013 accord brokered with Russian intervention. But while tit-for-tat military strikes across Syria may satisfy the impulse to just “do something,” the towering long-term challenge is to end the country’s protracted civil war. Just because there’s consensus about the problems we face in Syria doesn’t mean there’s clarity on effective solutions.
As on many issues, Trump is intervening against Assad without providing even the hint of a viable long-term plan. Trudeau and other heads of state are right to condemn the gas attack in Khan Sheykhoun, but that doesn’t mean they should be cheerleading for Trump’s rash intervention. Instead, they should insist that Trump respect the role of multilateral UN processes. Such mechanisms can be frustratingly slow, but the alternatives never provide effective or enduring solutions.
Most participants in the Syrian civil war view it as a fight to the death, as the battle for Aleppo demonstrated at the end of 2016. This view of the end game must change if we’re ever going to stop the carnage in Syria. Given that the real power broker in Syria right now is Russia, the West — especially the U.S. — must redouble efforts get Russia to stop Syrian government atrocities and force an end to the war.
There may be agonizing choices that the West must make on Syria, but they cannot be random, unstudied, and unilateral. Trudeau and his international peers fail their citizens when they do nothing more than retroactively rubber stamp the rash decisions of our impetuous American neighbour.