The hypocrisy of airstrikes on Syria
Are Trump, May and Macron using Syria to deflect attention away from their failing domestic policies?
No approval by Congress, no debate in Parliament, no input by the French Assemblee, no Security Council Resolution, no inspection by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), but yet, a jubilant Trump, a resolute May and a beaming Macron — they had just taught Syrian president Assad a lesson; there is a red line that cannot be crossed.
Taking decisive action within the democratic process can sometimes be a little thorny, especially when we consider the recent history of Western military operations in the Middle East and public opposition to another intervention, to stop yet another modern-day Hitler. ‘Yes,’ they assure us, ‘perhaps previous interventions have been a little misguided, but this time it will be different, really, honestly, truly, and by the way, are you in favour of the evil dictator gassing his own people?’ Remember George W. Bush’ old saying: ‘either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.’
The Prussian general and war philosopher Carl von Clausewitz once said that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means.’ How right he was. As cruise missiles rained down on Damascus, Trump had the opportunity to demonstrate to the world that he is a strong, no-nonsense leader, in no way taking his queues from Putin. Theresa May could show resolve on the international stage, while perhaps moving on from the increasingly embarrassing aftermath of the Salisbury poisoning, with evidence mounting that Russia’s involvement might be doubtful. Emmanuel Macron is facing a nation in revolt, with the entire public sector opposing his economic proposals, impending strike action set to paralyse the country and approval ratings at their lowest since taking office. Von Clausewitz is eating his heart out.
In 2003 Bush and Blair thought history would justify their invasion of Iraq. It clearly didn’t. Instead it set in motion a tragedy of epic proportions. With over a million dead and sectarian terror spreading across the region, one wonders whether we are witnessing the ‘birth pangs’ of the new Middle East, as envisioned by Condoleeza Rice.
Syrians have experienced extreme suffering since 2011. At the height of the civil war, almost 11 million people were displaced. It is a myth that the West has not intervened in Syria, something we are hearing quite often in the last few days. In fact, under the Obama and Cameron governments, we have offered tacit support to numerous rebel groups inside Syria, either directly or via our loyal allies in the region; Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf kingdoms. We have fanned the flames of sectarianism by selling weapons to the Saudis, who have armed and financed Sunni jihadist groups, some merging into ISIS and others who are still fighting across the region.
All the concern our leaders are currently expressing about the Syrian people seems a little random, as Yemenis continue to suffer under Saudi bombs and a blockade of the country, which has caused famine and cholera. And those with a little sense of history will know that our track record in Syria is not exactly one that shows any regard for the people.
Might we consider some of this history?
We can go back to 1915, when British envoy in Cairo, Sir Henry McMahon managed to convince the Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca to rebel against his Ottoman overlords. In return for this risky step, the British would see to it that the Arabs received their independence. Detailed correspondence between Hussein and McMahon shows a future Arab state stretching from the Sinai Desert, deep into the Arab peninsula, as proposed in the so-called Damascus protocol.
Hussein’s sons, Faisal and Abdullah, raised a force of several thousand Arab fighters who pushed back Ottoman forces until a victorious Faisal entered Damascus in 1918 as a liberator. In anticipation of the future Arab state, Faisal named himself ‘king of Syria.’
Alas, the British had courted not only the Arabs, but also the French, in the secret but notorious Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, in which the two imperialist powers divided up the Middle East as part of their empire building. The French had designs on Syria and Lebanon, while the British seized Palestine and Iraq, creating a puppet regime to the south: the kingdom of Saudi-Arabia.
The promises to the Arabs were quickly forgotten as the French landed in Damascus to remove Faisal. As ‘compensation,’ Faisal was awarded the newly created territory of Transjordan, while his brother Abdullah was put in charge of Iraq. The Hashemite family had successfully been turned into a set of pliable puppets, doing the British bidding, while supporting the Zionist project in Palestine.
For most British and Europeans, this imperial wheeling and dealing belongs to the past. But lets not forget that most of the post WW1 creations are still in existence. Jordan is still ruled by the Hashemite family, while the Saudis have outgrown their former creators and have become a sinister force in their own right. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the British and French continued to oppose self-determination for Arabs, even though now, they played second fiddle to the Cold War powers America and the Soviet Union. Of course, we all remember the disastrous intervention in Suez in 1956, when a joint Anglo-French-Israeli operation failed to discipline the popular Egyptian leader Gamad Abdel Nasser. Instead, British and French meddling now concentrated on funding and supporting regimes who they could do business with; the Saudis first and foremost, but the Jordanians, Lebanese, Emirates and Iranians before 1979 were always loyal partners as well.
But surely this is different. Why bring up all this history?
Current generations can’t be held accountable for the crimes of their forefathers. We have moved on. We can hardly blame Angela Merkel for the crimes of Hitler now, can we? However, for the people living in the unravelling Middle East, this history is still very much alive. Many of the displaced of the Syrian civil war straggled into Europe, often crossing the Mediterranean in rubber dinghies. Britain has generously taken 20 000 Syrian refugees, many of whom have not yet arrived. Syrian children have been ignored, with many of the current cabinet members, so keen on air strikes, voting against accepting Syrian children into Britain. Some of these children have been living in refugee camps for their entire lives. Others have survived on the streets of foreign cities, living lives of destitution, their lives stolen from them by the machinations of the imperial chessboard.
Have we properly reflected on the destruction of Iraq, where we killed over a million people? Did we learn from the lies leading up to that war? In 2003 we were asked to concentrate on the sheer evil of Saddam Hussein, a leader we had courted a mere fifteen years before. We shook his hands as he sprayed poison gas over the unsuspecting civilians of Halabja. In 2011, we were encouraged to see Gaddaffi for the monster he had always been; a modern Hitler, butcher of his own people, yet, we had relied on the man to keep migrants out of Europe and supply us with gas and oil. And as we speak, our Saudi allies are raining terror down on Yemeni civilians, using UK manufactured weapons, while blocking humanitarian aid reaching the country. Are we concerned about the continued siege on Gaza by our Israeli friends, who continue to breach international law to kill Arabs? The list is so long.
Again, what is the point of remembering? Lest we forget, right?
It is very clear that the well-being of the people in the Middle is not important in the faintest. Their well-being has continually been sacrificed on the altar of self-interest, greed and political calculations.
Our democratically elected leaders know they can tug at our heart strings by evoking an evil dictator slaughtering his own people. We are humane, so we can relate to the ‘red line’ argument. The authorisation of air strikes, without proper democratic debate reminds us of 2003, when Hans Blix and his team of UN weapons inspectors were rushed out of Iraq, as US policy makers had already made up their minds that they were going to attack. Are our leaders perhaps preparing the ground for the real war of the future; an assault on Iran— a longstanding wish of Israel and Saudi-Arabia? One wonders.
Von Clausewitz wrote in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the height of the Napoleonic Wars. He experienced how ideas could sometimes be exported or imposed by bullets and cannons. Strategists in the Pentagon or in the Kremlin for that matter, have learned some lessons from history. In their world, air strikes and invasions are simply by-products of their world view. Nothing much has changed.