Attacking Syria is about saving face, not saving lives

There is no such thing as a “surgical strike”, and we must assume that civilians may be killed in any airstrikes.

Military intervention in Syria's civil war will make the situation much worse, writes Shabi [AFP]

The moral outrage is all over this debate. As the West prepares to launch airstrikes against the Syrian regime in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons, lines of global leaders and their cheering commentators are using a superior sense of morality to justify it. Last year, Obama talked of chemical weapons use being a “red line” in Syria – and now that it has been crossed, we are told that we must act.

US Secretary of State John Kerry set the tone when he described the attacks as “morally obscene” and demanding of a military response. British Prime Minister David Cameron, has said that the world cannot “stand idly by” in the face of the Syrian regime’s “morally indefensible” use of chemical weapons.

Ludicrously painting President Barack Obama – he of the drones hit list ­- as a “reluctant warrior”, the London Daily Telegraph chief foreign correspondent describes the US as a superpower whose credibility is necessary to prevent “terrible things” from taking place across the globe. In the London Times, political columnist Daniel Finkelstein urges that we must do something “even if it is just for show” – because the West cannot do nothing in the face of such appalling tyranny. And right on cue, the great moral crusader and Middle East peace envoy, Tony Blair, has urged us to stop “wringing our hands” and launch an attack in Syria  – repeating the fraudulent assertion that the only alternative to airstrikes is impotent inaction.

And so the frames of debate have been set. Anyone who saw those horrible pictures of dead children, apparently killed by chemical attack, that poured out of Syria last week, wants an end to such devastation and tragedy. Thus we are reeled into support for a potentially catastrophic military strike using the chemical horror as trigger, because it works: The moral red line is reeled out precisely because interventionists swallow it wholesale.

Remember the moral mission over Iraq, or the invasion impetus to “liberate” women in Afghanistan? Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed since the invasion of 2003 – and the bloodshed continues, partly as a crossover from the Syrian conflict: 1,000 people were killed in Iraq this July alone. That should make interventionists think twice about moral justifications – but it seems this hook is just too seductive, too perfectly attuned to a western enlightened sense of self.

Why should military action be necessitated by outrage over chemical attacks? Was there a red line on chemical weapons when the US used depleted-uranium ammunition in Fallujah, Iraq? Was there a red line when Israel deployed white phosphorous in Gaza in 2008? Or when Saddam Hussein, then a western ally, gassed the Iranians and then his own people during the 1980s? This arbitrary and self-serving declaration of what’s acceptable is precisely what makes the US so lacking in credibility when it comes to preaching codes of warfare to the Middle East.

It should be clear that these planned western alliance airstrikes aren’t about Syrian lives – not the unimaginable death tolls in excess of 100,000, nor the agonising lines of refugees pouring into neighbouring countries.

If these heads of state cared about Bashar al-Assad butchering and dropping bombs on the Syrian people, they would have “done something” constructive much sooner – not, as the so-called liberals suggest, stormed in with counterproductive airstrikes. Rather, they would have exerted the necessary pressure on rebel allies and conducted the necessary diplomacy with Assad backers, to quickly get the regime and its opponents to a negotiating table. And it is not too late to do any of that now.

If these proposed strikes were about Syrian lives, and not a proxy war to destabilise the “Shia axis” of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, the West wouldn’t snub Assad’s allies – Russia, China and Iran – by proposing to bypass the UN. Nor would it blatantly discredit the currently working weapons inspectors whom Russia used its pressure to persuade Assad to allow into Syria in the first place.

If the goal were to help the Syrian people, how could this diplomatically rude unilateralism count as a sensible move?

If the US were remotely serious about a morally correct international response to the alleged use of chemical weapons it would, as the former British government security advisor, Admiral Lord West, suggested on Wednesday, share any evidence it claims to possess with Russia and China. Antagonising Russia also makes it much harder to coordinate the humanitarian effort desperately needed not just in the refugee camps in neighbouring countries, but within Syria itself.

If the goal were to help the Syrian people, how could this diplomatically rude unilateralism count as a sensible move?

Most of all, it should be clear that the strikes are about saving face, not saving lives, because of the warnings of disastrous consequences. First, there is no such thing as a “surgical strike” – we must assume that civilians may be killed in any airstrikes against Syria. But more broadly, a military intervention will make the situation much worse because the terrible war within Syria is also a cynical, neo-Cold War. In this context, and given Assad’s loyal allies, it is likely that a western military move will spark retaliation, not just against the Syrian population but across the region, too.

Yet because of the current, accelerated impetus to strike, there is little thought given to consequences, no planning for the day after – no political plan at all. And even as the region buckles under the strain of this brutal, spreading battle, crucial warnings are seemingly brushed aside in the overwhelming need to prove that the West is the good side.

Perhaps if we stopped believing that the Middle East needs the West’s moral posturing, we might start to think differently about its role and responsibilities in that region. Leaders will always seek to justify military interventions using democratic values and lovely human rights slogans when it suits particular agendas of the time. But we don’t have to lap it up so willingly – or give them a green light to go ahead.

Rachel Shabi has written extensively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Middle East. Her award-winning book, Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands, was published in 2009. She received the International Media Awards Cutting Edge prize in 2013, the Anna Lindh Journalism Award for reporting across cultures in 2011, and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize the same year.

Follow her on Twitter: @rachshabi