The civilised world has stopped altogether questioning the legality of military actions of countries mighty and powerful beyond their own borders since the illegal occupation of Iraq by the US and its coalition of the willing (for some countries the entire world is their area of interest, and thus their intentions and actions, they assert, cannot be circumscribed by political boundaries). However, in this instance one might nonetheless ask whether the aim of the air strike on Syrian targets on April 13 by US, Britain and France, would actually meet the stated US objective—deterring Assad.
I use the term “US objective” knowing fully well that an immediate riposte to that would be, “Does the US have any objective in Syria at all?” Because, hardly had Trump finished announcing that the US would commence withdrawing from Syria soon, when he had to announce the bombing of that country targeting the Syrian command centres and establishments involved in constructing chemical weapons (CW). This was in response to the alleged chemical attack on Douma in the rebel held enclave of eastern Ghouta by Syrian government forces.
The different versions of the alleged CW attack by Syrian forces, appearing in the print as well as electronic media, make it difficult to conclude one way or the other who is right in this regard. But the reports appearing in the media lend enough ground to question the veracity of the allegation. Nonetheless, given the past record of the Assad regime of using CW, the possibility of his doing so again cannot be altogether ruled out. But by the same token, the brazen distortion, generation and propagation of lies by the US to justify its aggression on Iraq in 2003, one cannot put it past them the likelihood of peddling fake news of the attack. We have to wait for the OPCW to finish their examination, if only to confirm if any type of CW was used.
And this time too, Trump, echoing President Bush's phrase aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in San Diego following the capture of Iraq by US forces on May 1, 2003 uttered “Mission Accomplished.” Given the outcome of US bombing of Syria a year ago prompted by similar circumstances, President Trump and his advisors might be left to rue the statement even much after he has left the White House, much like what his past Republican predecessor is doing even now. Trump's comments will, in all likelihood, reassert the character the phrase has acquired since it was first uttered, a synonym for premature declaration of victory that has gone terribly awry.
The US bombing of Syria in April 2017 following Assad's chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun on April 4 2017, in Idlib province, had done nothing to deter the regime in Damascus as the alleged April 7 attack in Douma indicates. Thus what does the phrase “locked and loaded”, which the US permanent representative in the UN uttered following the UN action on Syria, imply? What does it mean for the US policy on Syria? Will it help resolve the humanitarian problem in Syria which has been compounded by a regime that has no compunction for its own people, and by the role of the powerful nations with their own conflicting stakes in Syria, which they are resolved to uphold even at the expense of the people of a country that the UN has described as one that is facing the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world. The very poignant but desperate comment of the United Nations Syria envoy's Special Adviser Jan Egeland on February 1, “This is a war where armed men are specialising in suffering of civilian populations,” sums up the real situation in that country.
If the US is so concerned about the lives of Syrian civilians and says that the April 7 CW attack by government forces was to convey a message to a rogue regime, what message does the US send when conventional bombings of Syrian civilians happen constantly, and Assad's is not the only regime that does so. One can question very well the moral ground that the US takes when it says that its action is to make Assad desist from killing civilians. The world has lost count of the number of civilian deaths not only in Syria but also in Iraq where the so called “mission” is yet to be accomplished, as a consequence of US aerial bombings.
In fact, according to reports of human rights groups, aerial attacks on rebel held areas of Syria, and against ISIS, by the US led coalition, have killed many civilians also. Take for example the period between April 23 and May 24 of 2017, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 225 civilians including 44 children and 36 women had been killed in the one-month period between April 23 and May 23. That explains the US coalition's selective reaction, only after alleged CW attack by Assad. Their action belies their stated intention behind their response. Its reactions are highly parochial.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.