I AM queasy about the air strikes against Syria conducted last Friday night by the United States, France, and the UK. The more I think about it, the more unsure I become about the legality and the moral rightness, let alone the wisdom, of this hastily conceived act.
Let’s start with what it was for. “Mission accomplished!” President Trump wrote on Twitter on Saturday morning. But what exactly was the mission, and how can he be so sure that it has been accomplished? Everyone agrees that chemical warfare is horrendous, and that no effort should be spared to eliminate chemical weapons. It seems beyond doubt that Syrian forces have used them against their own citizens more than once.
But how have the air strikes dealt with this fact on the ground? If it can be proved that they have eliminated all possibility that Syria can go on manufacturing chemical weapons, I suppose that that would amount to “mission accomplished” — in a sense. But previous strikes against Syria made similar claims that events subsequently proved wrong. And last Friday’s raids cannot rule out the possibility that Syria could obtain chemical weapons from elsewhere — North Korea, for example. So what difference have the air strikes actually made? Were they meant as a punishment? A warning? I wish I knew.
ONE thing is clear. The risks that were incurred last Friday night were truly in the red zone, and it is too soon to say whether they have been mitigated. The possibility that raids on Syria could result in “collateral damage” — that is, the death and injury of human beings — was high, and we do not yet know, definitely, that this has been avoided. Had any of those people been Russians, then retaliation was almost certain. From there, events would escalate in a matter of days, even hours. A proxy war between major powers being waged in Syria could easily morph into a serious regional conflict. This is how world wars begin. We have to ask what kind of risk-calculus informed the strikes.
In the light of all this, it is all the more puzzling that the Prime Minister did not bring her decision to collaborate in the air strikes to Parliament before carrying them out. No doubt the memory of her predecessor’s failure to secure parliamentary support for a similar action weighed heavily on her mind.
Yet, in her position, I would sleep more easily in my bed if I had gone to the place where I knew my evidence would be carefully sifted and my argument rigorously tested. I would thereby both acknowledge the sovereignty of Parliament (always a good thing to do), and gain reassurance (if the vote went my way) by having secured its ownership of what could easily turn out to be a life-or-death decision. Parliament reconvened on Monday. It would not have been asking too much to delay action by a mere 48 hours.
No one disputes that it is the responsibility of the executive to take decisions in emergencies. But I doubt whether this was one of them. When the executive appears to act prematurely when it would have been possible to take a longer, more considered view, I begin to worry that the powers that safeguard our democratic processes have been subverted.
ANOTHER concern is the rhetoric that is being used about chemical weapons. All agree that chemical warfare is horrendous. But if anything has been learned from Syria in recent years, it is that the regime’s deployment of conventional weapons against its own people is not less horrendous. The cruel and cynical way in which so many thousands of innocent people have been relentlessly killed and maimed in Syria through conventional attacks is one of the ugliest horror stories of our times.
To protest righteously against chemical weapons without also recognising the attrition caused by conventional weapons is morally dubious. It has the effect of normalising conventional warfare as somehow acceptable, or, at least, less unacceptable than chemical warfare. And when we consider that the UK is willingly exporting huge numbers of conventional weapons capable of causing immense injury and loss of life, we have to ask whether our own moral purity as a nation is beyond reproach. By the standards of 19th-century weaponry, the hideously destructive armaments of our own day — landmines, fuel bombs, and barrel bombs, for example — are anything but conventional.
I AM keenly aware of Edmund Burke’s great dictum that evil happens when good men stand by and do nothing. I am not a pacifist, and I believe that nations are right to intervene strategically if there is a good prospect of a better outcome than there would have been if they had held back. I am old-fashioned enough to believe that the concept of a just war still has validity.
But the tragedy of Syria since the war erupted is precisely the consequence of Western nations’ having done little or nothing to make a difference that would last. So it will not do for the US, France, and Britain to indulge in an episodic fit of moral outrage and decide in haste to take precipitate action that risks making the situation many times worse.
The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, has said, chillingly, that the Cold War is back with a vengeance. I fear that he is right. If so, the last thing that is needed is precipitate, reckless grandstanding with missiles.
Instead, we need to pause and consider the consequences of what we do. This, among other things, is what a proper parliamentary process would have provided. To see the end from the beginning is a central aspect not only of realpolitik but of human wisdom. If ever our leaders needed that gift, it is now.
The Very Revd Michael Sadgrove is Dean Emeritus of Durham Cathedral.
This is an edited version of a blog that was originally published on Saturday: northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.co.uk.