The use of chemical weapons in Syria and the US air strikes in punishment are part of the continuing descent into lawlessness by various actors with unforeseeable consequences in an already inflamed region.
On Friday, two US warships launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Al Shayrat, the Syrian air base from where allegedly chemical weapons had been used on 4 April in Khan Sheikhun that killed 86 people. Donald Trump, the first US president with no previous political or military leadership, has restored assertive US global leadership with the airstrikes to noticeable ebullience in Washington.
No tears need be shed at the pain inflicted on Bashar al-Assad nor at Russia’s humiliation. Yet there is cause to worry at the continuing descent into lawlessness in both the use of chemical weapons and the unilateral strikes. Moreover, as Trump’s action remains unpredictable rather than informed by a coherent strategic purpose, how and when this will end is also deeply concerning.
To America’s numerous admirers and supporters, the strikes were swift, decisive, proportionate, precisely targeted, and justified. They put all baddies on notice that a new sheriff is patrolling the global beat. To critics, they were impetuous, unilateral, yet another in a long line of acts of aggression, and will add to the growing list of threats to world peace. They validate Obama’s complaint about the militarised first response in the Washington playbook and resurrect the discredited neocon agenda of imposing US will on the rest of the world: anyone who refuses to pay the respect due to America can expect to pay for the lack of respect.
The use of chemical weapons and the retaliatory strikes show just how broken and dysfunctional the existing global order and its key institutions are. No one seems at all interested in repairing the damaged and increasingly frail normative architecture, and therein lies the real danger to our shared future security and destiny.
Chemical weapons have been used six times in Syria between 2013 and 2017, by government and rebel forces. They are indiscriminate, inhumane, immoral, and illegal. The norm and law prohibiting use, possession, manufacture, and transfer has strengthened with the Hague Conference in 1899, the Geneva Protocol in 1925, and the Chemical Weapons Convention signed in 1993 and in force since 1997.
Their repeated use in Syria heightens the risk of the normalisation of their use, universal abhorrence and revulsion notwithstanding. If the regime is guilty of the Khan Sheikhun attack, as seems likely despite some doubts based on past form by Washington in presenting allegations as conclusions, either Russia is complicit through knowing in advance or else Moscow too is open to deception by its Syrian ally. Either way, its standing in the region is gravely damaged both with the chemical weapon use and the inability to prevent retaliatory US airstrikes. Russian President Vladimir Putin has learnt that lying down with dogs risks waking up with fleas.
But what if you lie down with the dogs of war? Assad’s violation of legal curbs on the use of sarin against Syrians cannot justify the illegal use of unilateral force by the United States. Looking at recent history, it is hard to believe that any side is animated mainly by humanitarian concerns. Washington played its part in dissembling about Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s. Moscow turns a blind eye to the deliberate assault on civilians by its Syrian protégé and has systematically shielded Assad from Security Council action by casting half a dozen vetoes in as many years.
US forces do not deliberately target civilians but Washington has been callous about large-scale civilian casualties as collateral damage in the pursuit of strategic and sometimes imperial goals. And some of its clients have turned out to be savage killers. Setting the moral compass for the whole world may satisfy Americans’ self-image of exceptional virtue but provokes stiff resistance from many others.
The dilemmas that had paralysed the cerebral Obama when chemical weapons were used in 2013, killing over 1,000 people, have not gone away for the viscerally kick-ass Trump. What exactly are US objectives and where are the means and the will to achieve them? Regime change by air strikes? Unrealistic, especially if Russia digs in and strengthens Assad’s air defences. This is more likely to prove a one-off strike to punish and deter the repeat use of chemical weapons rather than a sustained air campaign like Kosovo in 1999 to topple Assad.
Regime change by a ground offensive? This will encounter stiff opposition from the American people and Congress. In any case, regime change to what – a post-Assad massacre of Alawites, Christians and “moderate” factions by the bloodthirsty Islamists who seem to be a dime a dozen in Syria today? Open the gates of hell in Syria to join the hellish nightmare ushered in on the back of Western interventions in Iraq and Libya?
The last major US and Western intervention that was at least moderately successful was Kosovo in 1999. Even that had a significant long-term adverse consequence in alienating Russian public and elite opinion and providing the precedent-setting justification, in their eyes, to annex Crimea in 2014. Interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria have left death, destruction, displacement, and broken polities and societies in their grim wake. Taking out the last secular dictator still standing in the Middle East could unleash even more catastrophic regional and global consequences. What are the chances that Kim Jong-un will double down on his nuclear weapons program against a trigger-happy Trump? We already have statements from Pyongyang to the effect that the strikes on Syria vindicate their nuclear choices “a million times over.”
If we follow the trail of domestic political advantage as a constant explanatory factor behind many foreign policy acts, the strikes were not authorised by Congress but are convenient in putting paid to conspiracy theories of collusion between Trump and Putin. The Washington establishment may have successfully killed off, to the detriment of international collaboration on some critical policy challenges, the green shoots of normalcy that Trump was cultivating in his Russia policy. Trump may also well be secretly pleased that China’s leader Xi Jinping was in the United States when the Tomahawks rained down on Syria, strutting his display of alpha male dominance for Xi to see, admire, and fear.
But the bigger lesson for China is that major powers can attack others with impunity. Why Japanese and Australian Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Malcolm Turnbull – who have offered prompt, unqualified support for the Trump strikes – should believe this to be in the best long-term security interests of their country is a mystery.
We seem to be reverting to a world ruled by raw power where might is right, where indeed the strong do what they can and the weak suffer as they must as Thucydides noted centuries ago. It is undoubtedly in Australia’s and Japan’s interest that American remain the strongest power. But China’s comprehensive national power keeps growing relative to the United States. This makes it strongly in Australian-Japanese joint interest to moderate the recourse to brute force in favour of a rules-based world order with functioning and effective institutions.
The core of the existing mandated multilateral order is the United Nations which has repeatedly proven to be unfit for purpose. The existing principles, structures, and institutions are incapable of dealing with rulers who terrorise their own people – Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad – but also ineffectual in holding major powers to account for aggression and other unlawful acts – the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia in Iraq; Russia in Ukraine; and China in the South China Sea. A call by the United Nations Secretary-General for all sides to exercise restraint in the Syrian conflict seems so grossly inadequate that, more than anything else, it highlights the impotence and irrelevance of the world organisation.
If the United Nations cannot enforce global norms and international law, either within nations or across state borders, is it time to discard it and start afresh? As the enforcement arm of the international community, either the Security Council is urgently reformed wholesale in its unelected permanent membership, veto procedures, and the numbers, term, and role of elected members. Or else the United Nations will slowly but surely limp along to extinction and we will all be poorer for it.
Ramesh Thakur is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University