By Syeda Mamoona Rubab
20 Apr 2018
Last week the United States along with two of its European allies – United Kingdom and France – bombed war-ravaged Syria to supposedly punish the regime there for use of chemical weapons. Although President Donald Trump, after raining down over hundred missiles together with his allies on Syrian targets, tweeted “mission accomplished”, the rising plumes of smoke and dust brought up several questions not just about the future of Syria, but also about the international order.
The immediate conclusion after the strikes was that it was an illegal action in response to an alleged illegality by Assad’s regime.
It was undoubtedly an illegal act on part of the three mighty allies because there was no United Nations approval for the strikes. Moreover, all three acted without getting the assent of their respective parliaments, making their actions domestically unconstitutional as well. There was not even a pretense of legal cover. The allied leaders Trump, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron, have since then attempted to defend their decision on humanitarian pretext.
The failure of Russian move at the UN Security Council to get the strikes condemned, which was supported only by China and Bolivia, notwithstanding, the bottom line remains that the action was illegitimate and driven by geo-political and geo-strategic considerations driving the allies’ approach on Syria and their animosity towards Russia, the staunchest ally of Assad regime in the Syrian conflict. The strikes, therefore, instead of moving the seven-year-old conflict towards resolution and stopping the brutalities, have aggravated the situation.
One must not forget that if hapless Syrians were ever to be helped then a concerted effort for ending the conflict is required, not missiles.
On the other side, it can at best be described as an alleged illegality on part of Syrian regime because so far there has not been any independent probe of the attack that happened on April 7 resulting in death of 40 people. The French and US intelligence about the attack was based on open source and seems to have flowed from a claim of the West-funded and controversial group the ‘White Helmets.’
A group of inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reached Syria a day after the strikes. The Syrian government welcomed the inspectors with its Assistant Foreign Minister Ayman Sousan telling BBC, “The work of the mission is in the interest of the Syrian state as it will uncover the lies, hypocrisy and the misinformation of the sides which had promoted the alleged use of chemical weapons.” However, till last reports, the OPCW inspectors were waiting for security clearance from UN to visit Douma, the site of the alleged attack.
Robert Fisk, a British journalist who has extensively worked on Middle East, meanwhile visited Douma this week and went to the clinic where the film about the gas victims that shook the world was recorded. Dr Assim Rahaibani, the doctor who runs the clinic, acknowledged that the video was recorded at his facility. Here is what he told Fisk, “I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night but all the doctors know what happened. There was a lot of shelling [by government forces] and aircraft were always over Douma at night. On this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a White Helmet, shouted ‘Gas!’ and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia – not gas poisoning.”
Fisk in his report carried by Independent reports, “Oddly, after chatting to more than 20 people, I couldn’t find one who showed the slightest interest in Douma’s role in bringing about the Western air attacks. Two actually told me they didn’t know about the connection.”
And now even US media has started suggesting that the American intelligence may not have been conclusive. CNN, quoting defence and intelligence officials, reported, “Even though US intelligence agencies did not have absolute certainty Syria’s regime had used the nerve agent sarin against civilians, the Trump administration still felt there was enough evidence to justify retaliatory strikes last Friday.”
A logical analysis of battlefield situation in Syria also leads one to the conclusion that chemical weapons attack by the regime was unlikely, if not impossible, at this stage when it had successfully evicted rebels from East Gouta – Douma being one of its neighbourhoods after nearly six years.
Therefore, it is common sense that the allies should have waited for investigations. Pakistan’s Foreign Office’s reaction to the strikes looked quite mature as it in principle condemned the use of chemical weapons, and asked for establishing “facts through urgent and transparent investigations by the OPCW”.
If there was ever a beneficiary of this whole episode, even though temporarily, it’s Trump. The US president, who was being condemned in the American media as “unstable” before the strikes took place, has now begun to be praised for taking “a rational decision.” Mueller and Comey investigations have sort of taken a back seat for the moment.
But, what does this mean for international peace and security? UN Secretary General António Guterres had just ahead of the strikes stated that “the cold war is back with a vengeance” and had warned that it could have consequences for Middle East and beyond.
The cold war that the secretary general is talking about would be very different from the one that today’s generation gets to read in books. In today’s cold war there is nothing holding back the adversaries. Whereas the old cold war was fought through proxies, the current version is more direct.
Mr Guterres cautions that the mechanisms that existed during the cold war earlier are no more there, implying the latest episode may be more dangerous.
Mercifully, Syria strikes did not lead to feared clash between US and Russia and the two parties have restricted themselves to verbal duels, but the missile attacks could be another step towards the imminent showdown, which would have consequences for the entire world.