Paul Heinbecker is a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations.
U.S. President Donald Trump is an awkward ally. Even when he’s right, he’s wrong. He was right to attack Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities in response to the slaughter of scores of Syrians in Douma, near Damascus. President Bashar al-Assad and his regime cannot be allowed to normalize the use of highly dangerous, mass-destruction chemical weapons, prohibited since the 1925 Geneva Protocol and reinforced in international law by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. But President Trump was wrong to tweet “mission accomplished” on Saturday morning. There is much more to do in this conflict than what this 17-minute military operation accomplished.
Under this transactional American President, the U.S. has no apparent policy on the Syria war and no strategy for bringing the bloody conflict to an end. Indeed, just two weeks ago Donald Trump was ready to pull out of the fight against Islamic State and leave the Syrian imbroglio for others to fix. He might still do that. But if so, he risks nullifying Friday night’s attack and he does nothing to dissuade the Syrian government from pressing on with a war that it is evidently winning with Russian and Iranian help, a development that is, to put it mildly, not in the interests of the U.S. or its allies.
We should be encouraged by the fact that the Russians and the Americans kept their lines of communication open before and during the attack. The Americans did not hit Russian facilities and no Russian casualties have been reported. For their part, the Russians complained bitterly (“an act of aggression” according to President Vladimir Putin), but did not use their air defence weapons to counter American missiles and their launch platforms as they had threatened to do. These are not small mercies. A clash of the titans would be highly dangerous for all concerned.
The Russians have been responding to the attack octopus-like, ink-clouding the convincing evidence of Syrian responsibility for Douma and their own complicity in it. Plausible sounding denials and righteous accusations out of the mouths of the same regime that invaded Georgia, annexed Crimea, used little green men to attack Ukraine, threatened the Baltic states, destabilized the Balkans, poisoned Russian emigres on the streets of London, murdered opposition leaders on the streets of Moscow and covered for the murderous Assad regime while it brutalized its own people, however, are unlikely to persuade any but the most gullible or cynical. Russia lost the UN Security Council vote it called Saturday decisively, attracting only two votes out of 14 to its side.
Meanwhile, the broader Middle East is simmering. The Israelis and the Iranians are threatening each other after an Israeli attack in Syria killed seven Iranian soldiers, bringing a war between Tel Aviv and Tehran a step closer. Further north, the Turks, who supported U.S. action saying that it was “unthinkable not to respond” to Syrian use of chemical weapons, are watching Syria intently, keeping lines open with Washington, Moscow and Tehran but determined to protect their interests along the Syrian border. Having sheltered millions of Syrian refugees, they have long sought Mr. al-Assad’s overthrow.
Friday night’s attack had several unintended consequences. First, the monster of Damascus, President al-Assad, has probably emerged strengthened in the eyes of his supporters and more confident than ever that the Americans do not have the stomach to take him down. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said the attack was “not about regime change,” and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis called the attack a “one-time shot.” These statements can be expected to reassure Mr. al-Assad as he continues to prosecute his war.
Second, Muslim media are carrying pictures of Christian countries attacking Muslim countries. This can readily be portrayed by the malevolent as further evidence of Christian oppression of Muslims.
Third, perversely, the emphasis on punishing the use of chemical weapons glosses over all the other means Mr. al-Assad has used to murder his own citizens. As many as 500,000 people have been killed by all manner of weapons. The unintended message to Mr. al-Assad is that he can kill as savagely as he wishes, provided that he does not use chemical weapons to do so.
Fourth, the UN Security Council has been weakened further. The Russians have used their veto 12 times in recent years to block Security Council resolutions on Syria, including one this past week that called for an independent investigation into the Douma attack. The United States, correctly, assumed that it was pointless to seek Security Council authorization for military action that the Russians would certainly veto. But the paralysis inflicted on the world body by its major members has deepened as a consequence.
In these circumstances, the government of Canada is wise to keep its gunpowder dry until such time as it might really be needed. We should focus now on initiatives to which we can add value, such as gathering evidence on war crimes, aiding the Syrian victims of war and more generally promoting reform of the refugee system globally so that responsibility is shared more equitably. One day the world, and even our awkward partner in Washington, will thank us for doing so.