The hawks take flight over Syria

Gavin Fleming reflects on Trump's Syrian airstrikes and the imperative of avoiding conflict with Russia

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There’s a flare. From the base of the missile, a rumble of force as the burst thrusts the twenty-foot metal shell and its deadly contents into the air. A thick spume lingers on the deck of the vessel in the aftermath as the Tomahawk tears its way skyward and angles into its trajectory toward the target: a sprawling Assad regime airbase. The process repeats over fifty times. In the meantime, all the world can do is watch—and wait.

It’s President Trump’s first conventional military attack on another country. It comes amid increased pressure on the White House from interventionists and hawks to act in response to the chemical attack believed to have been perpetrated by the Assad Regime in Idlib on Tuesday. That attack (utilising the deadly nerve agent sarin) resulted in the deaths of approximately one hundred individuals. Twenty-five were children.

For those who criticised the jaw-jaw of the UN Security Council’s finger-wagging at Russia and Syria one would expect the US strikes to be greeted with aplomb. Surely here was the decisive action that the bleeding-heart hawks of the world so desperately sought? But no—there is instead a sense of graven dread. It conjures to mind the myth of Pandora’s box, or the adage of the genie being let out of the bottle. Events are apace, terrible events, the like of which our world has not seen for near half-a-century.

Last year I would quip that when the US rejected Hilary Clinton, it dodged not just a bullet but a nuclear bomb. That was because the hawkish proclivities of Mrs Clinton were abhorrent to my concern for the peace of the West, and the relative calm of the world. Clinton seemed set to embark upon a campaign of bellicosity against Assad and Putin which many thought would usher in the dreaded war to end all wars: World War III. The threat was very real, as was highlighted by the Russian President himself, who predicted that if Clinton took power war between the two international titans would ensue. She did not. And for a time, those of us averse to the prospect of global conflict with Russia could breathe a sigh of relief.

Then came today’s events. A few hours prior to the missile strikes, Clinton, in an interview, suggested the US target Assad’s airbases. From her, such action would be expected. But not from Trump. This is a man who flirted more than once in his rallies and debates with the idea that Assad would continue as President, even temporarily, in the aftermath of the civil war. The indifference which characterised Trumpist isolationism presented a more tactile, pragmatic approach to the Syrian situation; an acknowledgement that the only credible power in the region was Assad, that there was no tangible opposition that could fill the void in his prospective absence, and a recognition that the greatest threat in Syria was not the incumbent Government, but ISIS.

Tuesday proved a watershed moment for the Trump Administration. The President was visibly shocked responding to questions in the aftermath of the sarin gas attack—and he was uncompromising in his acknowledgement that the Syrian leader had “crossed many, many lines”. Trump’s response was an emotional condemnation which betrayed his oft-ignored humanity. But it was also a red flag. For here was the danger of heart ruling head.

Trump’s previous position on this matter was at least plausible. A conclusion to the civil war under the Assad regime (giving way to democratic reforms) was distasteful, but was at least achievable. The rag-tag band of rebels that battle the Government are lame ducks, distractions, that hover at some times dangerously close to the realms of Islamic extremism, at others frustratingly near to feebleness and anonymity.

Imbecility abounds, and dangerously so. For those that call upon the West to swoop down, with unbridled zeal, talons bared, in a clamour of compassion upon Syria, I ask: have you forgotten so quickly the cause of these problems—our intervention in Iraq in 2003, our support for the revolutions of 2011? Have you a plan for just how we might force Assad from power? Indeed, have you any idea what might replace him? And above all, are you prepared to see the embers of this skirmish in Syria reignite into total war with Russia? I am not, and I defy anyone to say that they would sacrifice the peace of the world for Syria.

Those images of men, women, and especially children, gasping for air, convulsing as the confounded poison gradually works through their systems, are an indictment upon humanity. Harrowing and horrific, they make us numb, they tear at our hearts, they scar our souls. But they are not an excuse for us to take leave of our senses. They are not a casus belli for us to initiate World War III. They are not a reason for us to repeat the same blasted mistakes of the past. They are a warning from history of the danger of heart ruling head. This civil war is after all a revolution: and revolutions are passionate and not rational in nature. As such, no civilised country should have a part in their promulgation.

Today’s strikes were conducted with cruise missiles. No US troops were engaged, no pilots required. It would behove the Trump Administration to remember that a core appeal which it made to its supporters was in its promise to keep America out of foreign wars, and moreover to prevent further deterioration in the West’s relationship with Russia. I for one will not condone the spilling of Western blood in a war that is not our own, for an end that is not to our favour. Trump’s impassioned defence of his actions makes clear the vigour of his regime, the unpredictability of it. For this I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, and commend his show of strength. He has put the fear of God into them—and that is not a bad thing. But let us hope our intervention ends there, that this “limited” missile-strike is just that: limited. For I remind the President of the words of his able and much admired predecessor, John Adams: “Great is the guilt of an unnecessary war.”