The recent strike on Syria sits upon a long-established pedestal of western intervention, based on technological superiority and moral certainty, and an apparent inability to actually change anything on the ground at all, beyond significantly denting it.
The moral fibre implicit in preventing the use of chemical weapons may be admirable and applaudable, but this retaliatory gesture was neither of those things. In fact the recent missile strike was an incredibly expensive assuaging of guilt for all of us in the west, and at the price of a British industry built cruise missile it’s one this government is willing to pay, at the expense of however many Syrian lives of either or no side it will undoubtedly cost.
Western powers and the UK specifically, chose not to intervene in the civil war three years ago after lengthy debate. At this point Russia was not involved, the rebels held ground in several major cities and were in a sustainable position. Rightly or wrongly it was decided we would not act. Yet Obama’s (later abandoned) red line on chemical weapons was then, as it has been today, seen as a moral standpoint which, in our Western epistemology, seemed credible. Essentially the West’s line went (and goes) something like this:
‘We won’t intervene unless innocent people and people fighting oppression are killed really, really horribly, rather than just through the everyday brutality of barrel bombs and snipers.’
Of course last time chemical weapons were used the red line wasn’t actually enough. Given that it was crossed without rebuke, it seems we’ve apparently tried to ignore Syria and all of its horrible discontents. We’ve all seen but scrolled past a news story about an embattled siege, an aid convoy held up and plundered of much needed medical supplies to prevent the recovery of civilians or fighters, or changed channel or looked away as a report of heavy civilian losses in a Syrian city, like any city in Britain, is pulverised from the air by its own government. We have chosen to ignore these under the precedent that it’s war, it’s a civil war and on some basis, we can allow these abject crimes against civilian populations because they are inflicted with the more mechnical materials of steel and high explosives.
However, it seems using chemical weapons is different, a war crime using these is a war crime worth half-heartedly ticking off with a few choicely picked specialist centres and shady looking science buildings. Chemical weapons are of course illegal and a cruel and indiscriminate form of killing and their use in the world is against everyone’s interest. But in this theatre of war to suggest that their use somehow crosses a line now worthy of our attention is symtompatic of distorted Western standards that scrutinise the principal means of killing rather than the principle of killing itself. We are loathe to look at the appalling suffering of people far away unless it breaches some level of suffering which acts as a threshold to our guilt and concern. Personally I don’t think such a threshold exists in Syria, where such high levels of systematic violence and cruelty has taken place daily for so many years without outcry.
Evidently the last straw for us isn’t that innocent people are killed every day. This is ostensibily within the apparent boundaries of mechanical war-civility. Because in fact these deaths are implicitly acceptable if we retaliate against the use of chemical weapons while ignoring all other war crimes that have taken place in Syria. The strike assuaged the moral guilt of war crime by chemicals, while implicitly condoning war crimes by other means as they have gone unchallenged. This isn’t an argument for more strikes or missed strikes, indeed intervening in a conflict now so marred in international tension is a deeply questionable move and one that should require better justification than a ‘principle of the thing’ reaction that showed no concern for the cost of human lives but only the method of their loss. It isn’t a call for anything, it’s a questioning of what we now mean when we intervene in Syria – what are the implicit statements behind our bombs?
If the West genuinely desired to prevent the deaths of people through the use of chemical weapons they could have struck at those stockpiles when they found them, not waited a week or so from the Douma attack. They chose not to. We chose to strike against the use of chemical weapons rather than the killings they exact. The strikes demonstrate that the US, Britain and France cared enough to not be recorded as failing to act on the use of chemical weapons, but did not care enough to prevent either their use in the first place or act to condemn or discipline (diplomatically or otherwise) any non-chemical war crime in Syria.
It shows that we are prepared to symbolically intervene when the grotesque violence shown on Western newsfeeds exceeds an agreed level of cruelty. These strikes attacked only the type of weaponry available to a dictatorship engaged in murdering of its own people. They might well have ‘sent a message’ but they were of no help to the cause of basic humanity that we have consciously let wither in Syria until, eventually, the means of civilian murder was too much to bear for our weary eyes watching the News at Ten.