SMOKE from the bombs we launched at Damascus, together with so many of the responses in Parliament and public, has obscured rather than illuminated the key issue that our military action raises.
Is it: how do we put an end to the use of chemical weapons? Or what is our strategy in Syria? Or how should we make decisions about going to war? Or how serious is the threat from Russia? Or, even, how reliable are our American allies?
Decisions should be taken at the most appropriate level, the principle of subsidiarity tells us. Where war depends on intelligence that cannot be shared with the wider public, or even with all MPs, it needs must reside with the Prime Minister. Of course, the Prime Minister can play politics with this, but so can Parliament, pundits, and the public.
But if we are to leave decisions over war to Prime Ministers and Presidents, that requires us to trust our leaders — and trust is a diminishing commodity in contemporary political life, thanks to Tony Blair on Iraq, and President Trump’s alarming propensity to tell lies at every turn. When President Trump declares “Mission accomplished”, cynics might wonder whether the mission was merely to get Stormy Daniels off the front pages in the United States.
There is much about which to be sceptical. Robert Fisk’s Independent report from Douma, on Tuesday, raised some doubts about whether what was filmed there was a gas attack or dust-choked oxygen-starvation from conventional bombing. Former British generals have asked why, since the Assad regime is clearly winning the Syrian civil war, it would jeopardise its imminent victory by using chemical weapons, risking intervention by the international community. There are other questions on which we cannot be clear.
We must also face the truth that we have no policy on Syria beyond hand-wringing. The West abdicated that when President Obama failed to enforce the red lines he drew over chemical weapons, and the British Parliament voted not to bomb in David Cameron’s time.
The brutal fact is that our real policy on Syria has been to let the Assad regime and IS kill one another, hoping only that neither were replaced by something worse. That may or not be effective realpolitik, but it hardly gives us claim to the moral high ground. Our best bet for a solution in Syria is to press Iran to force President Assad to the negotiating table.
We have a peculiar horror of chemical warfare, although the tens of thousands of Syrians massacred with conventional weapons might fail to see the distinction. Our air strikes risk sending the message that it is OK to kill your own citizens so long as you don’t use chemicals. Certainly, we seem blind to the use in Yemen of white phosphorus supplied by the West to our Saudi Arabian allies there. Few distressing photographs of innocent Yemeni children with chemically burned faces have appeared in our media.
But, then, white phosphorus is not being applied to doorknobs in British cathedral cities. Our air strikes last weekend might have more to do with Salisbury than with Syria.