I see folks on Facebook lamenting that Syria was recently hit by US/UK/French missiles.
I don’t get it. Why the grief now, and not about everything else that has happened in Syria since 2011? War is only wrong if the US, Britain, or France get involved?
Many are saying that the casus belli, the Syrian government gas attack on its own civilians, seems likely to be bogus. The US had just announced it was pulling out. It was entirely in the Syrian government’s interest to lie low for a while.
I accept that Machiavellian logic. Regimes do sometimes do stupid things that are not in their own self-interest. But that would suggest some breakdown in command, so that local players are operating in their own behalf. It was more likely staged, a false flag, by the opposition.
I’m not sure that is important. Whether or not he was responsible for this attack, it is plain that Assad has been continuing to manufacture and to use chemical weapons. This is in violation of the deal by which the US did not intervene under Obama. Such things cannot be ignored. It is just fortunate to have a clear violation now in order to make the point. Now, I trust, chemical weapons are less likely to be used, and not only because the strike targeted Syria’s chemical weapons facilities.
Russia has of course protested, on the reasonable grounds that this was a plain violation of Syria’s national sovereignty. Not long ago, I would have agreed. It used to be accepted international law that one country did not intervene in another’s affairs without a formal request from the government, and this seemed wise. Until Rwanda. Everyone felt pretty bad afterwards about not intervening, and a new international standard emerged in time for the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo: foreign intervention was justified and called for if any government was violating basic human rights with regards to their own citizens. Gas attacks would fall under this rule.
Given that Russian military was on site, does it all risk starting some wider war? Yeah. By the same token, so does the US sitting on its hands. On balance, by convincing Putin to tread more softly, this looks to me more likely to prevent than to provoke a wider war. Russia has been throwing its weight around, here and elsewhere. The more it does so, the more it risks inadvertently provoking a big war. Rather like the German Kaiser sticking his finger in everywhere leading up to World War I. Putin has been swashbuckling for the sake of prestige. Suddenly it looks as though the big boys have come to play. Now this adventure begins to feel like bit of a humiliation. That may make him less eager to undertake the next one. If he risks a wider war in Syria, he is an idiot: there is no way Russia can match the US, Britain and France in any overseas theatre.
His own position depends on sleight of hand. Russia is in bad shape; worse with the collapse in the price of oil. He may need foreign policy successes to stay in power; but, by the same token, a serious humiliation could topple him.
A third issue is the presence of Iran in Syria, in support of Assad. Apparently John Bolton was previously opposed to any US intervention, but now backs it because he fears the growing influence of Iran. If the US leaves a vacuum here, and it is filled by Iran as a regional power, this is troublesome for allies like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Israel, and Kuwait.