On April 13, the US, UK, and France jointly launched air strikes on Syria, targeting suspected chemical weapons sites. The air strikes targeted a research centre outside Damascus, and two suspected chemical weapons storage sites near the city of Homs. The action was in response to an alleged chemical attack on civilians in the town of Douma.
From the outset, what does this mean for the war in Syria? And will the strikes stop Assad from using chemical weapons against civilians?
It will send a strong message in a very narrow space for a very short period of time. It is a political act and not so much a military act. It’s important to remember that it was exactly almost 25 years ago that the US bombed a site in Sudan that it said was potentially making a chemical weapons site that al-Qaeda was using turned out to be a milk factory.
So, the lesson is that a military strike can’t stop this kind of action or address the underlying dysfunctions which lead to it. And this is the challenge that the US currently faces: How can it combine militarism with serious diplomacy associated with socio-economic engagement in the context of Syria and other Middle Eastern conflicts?
It appears that there isn’t any concrete evidence yet as to what chemical weapons were used or who was responsible. It needs to be noted that OPCW hasn’t actually completed its work in Douma.
This is the challenge that the US currently faces: How can it combine militarism with serious diplomacy associated with socio-economic engagement in the context of Syria and other Middle Eastern conflicts?
Even if we have confirmation that chemical weapons were used, is it legal under international law for the US, France, and the UK to take unilateral military action in Syria?
Whatever happens with the Security Council is going to be vetoed by one party or the other. Russia will veto anything that takes place in Syria. Likely, the US will consistently veto anything that takes place in Israel and Palestine.
The Security Council is therefore useless as a peacemaker. As far as I know, international law allows one state to use pre-emptive military strikes if there’s direct, imminent, and immediate threat to its national well-being.
This is not about fine points of the rule of law. This is about neo-imperialism, whether on the part of Russia or the US -- they are both acting similarly. This is really a story about people who have military force and will use it. The difference is that Russia is subtle, patient, nuanced, and strategic about how they react to such issues.
If Russia were to have a stern word with Bashar al-Assad today, would he listen? It’s not clear.
Of course, Russia has tremendous leverage just as the US does over Israel. But Assad can do as he pleases because he has Russia’s backing, and indeed the Syrian people over a barrel.
If Bashar has to go, it’s very possible that the state of Syria will collapse.
There are over a thousand different groups, and they don’t agree on anything. It’s very unlikely that the men under Assad will agree on anything once he’s gone. So, Russia has to handle him with kid gloves.
So, that’s the dilemma. It’s also a dilemma for the Syrian people, since they surely don’t want chaos. They don’t want the kind of militia warfare we are witnessing in Libya or Afghanistan. But, at the same time, they do want change, but nobody knows how to bring it in a peaceful way.
Md Sharif Hasan is a commentator on international politics, and is currently working as a field researcher on behalf of the Centre for Genocide Studies (CGS), University of Dhaka.