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Syria Raids Allow May to Pose as Patriot – But Betray Her Weakness
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Political leaders in power generally like small wars. It enables them to stand tall, wrap the flag around them, pretend they hold the fate of the nation in their hands, and denigrate their opponents as unpatriotic softies.

Theresa May is behaving in keeping with this stereotype since ordering four British planes to join the very limited air attack on three Syrian facilities on Saturday morning. Her performances are low-key but resolute, occasionally aping Elizabeth I at Tilbury defying the Spanish Armada, but more usually recalling a stern-faced Judi Dench as M, sending 007 on some dangerous but necessary mission to thwart the plots of the enemy. The trick is to appear weighed down by a terrible sense of responsibility, but not afraid to take decisive action in defence of our nation.

The media likewise enjoys a short sharp military conflict. It is good for business because people have a stronger imperative than normal to find out what is happening in the world. The first newspapers were born out of the wars at the end of the 16th and beginning of 17th centuries. Military conflict is exciting and provides plenty of melodrama that can be reported as a simple conflict between good and evil.

On this occasion, the minimalist nature of the strikes left news anchors and their caste of reporters all dressed up but with nowhere to go. Their sense of disappointment and anticlimax at not reporting a real war was ill-concealed. Suddenly, there were too many actors on stage without enough lines to speak, though each, from Washington to Moscow to Beirut (few seem to have made it to Damascus, presumably because of an absence of visas), had to have their say even when they had nothing of interest to report. Coverage was consequently tedious and unrevealing since even those correspondents with something original and interesting to say did not have the time to say it.

But the air strikes on Saturday morning should not be dismissed simply as a glorified PR stunt. They have a very real significance, though one that is diametrically the opposite to that claimed by Donald Trump, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron. What we saw was not a demonstration of strength by the US, UK and France but a demonstration of weakness.

The evidence for this, reflecting the real balance of power in Syria, is the list of targets that were not attacked rather than the three that were. Tremendous efforts were made not to kill or injure any Russians, as the dominant political and military force in Syria. The Iranians and Hezbollah of Lebanon were evidently out of bounds. So too was the Syrian army, including its elite divisions, heavy equipment and ammunition dumps. Unlike Baghdad in 1991, 1998 and 2003, there were no cruise missiles striking empty but iconic sites like the presidential palace or defence ministry buildings in Damascus.


Theresa May and Boris Johnson argue that the air strikes were simply “humanitarian” in intent and to prevent the “normalisation” of the use of poison gas. Johnson speaks as if Assad were the first to use gas since the First World War, ignoring the tens of thousands of Iranians and Kurds gassed in the Iran-Iraq war by Saddam Hussein, who was supported by the US, UK and France.

Suppose that the threat of renewed air strikes does deter Assad: this is not necessarily great news for the Syrian people because less than 1 per cent – some 1,900 people out of the half a million Syrians who have died violently in the wars since 2011 – have died by gas. If foreign leaders showed any real concern over seven years of butchery in Syria, they would have made greater efforts in the past to bring this horrendous war to an end.

The restrained nature of the air strikes was sensible and realistic, reflecting the real balance of power in Syria. Assad is backed by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Shia forces from Iraq and has largely won the civil war. This is not going to change without an open-ended campaign of mass bombing in support of rebel ground troops like that which Nato conducted in Libya in 2011.

A similar campaign could not be conducted against Assad because, unlike Isis, he has powerful foreign allies in the shape of Russia and Iran. As the US discovered to its cost, the only determined and experienced anti-Assad fighters available, aside from the Kurds, belong to Isis and al-Qaeda. Remember how, in 2016, an embarrassed Pentagon admitted spending $500m to produce just five trained moderate pro-US fighters, rather than the 5,000 it had expected?

The point is that even far more extensive air strikes would not have changed the outcome of the Syrian war, though they would certainly have escalated it and killed a lot more people. There is a myth, lately adopted by President Trump, that President Obama lost a real opportunity to weaken or get rid of Assad in 2013, but the factors that restrained Obama then apply today with equal force to Trump: it is not possible to get rid of Assad without a wider war and, even if he went, the outcome would be a collapse of the state, as in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq, producing chaos in which Isis and al-Qaeda will flourish.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Britain, Russia, Syria 
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  1. Randal says:

    Her performances are low-key but resolute, occasionally aping Elizabeth I at Tilbury defying the Spanish Armada, but more usually recalling a stern-faced Judi Dench as M, sending 007 on some dangerous but necessary mission to thwart the plots of the enemy. The trick is to appear weighed down by a terrible sense of responsibility, but not afraid to take decisive action in defence of our nation.

    It’s teeth-grindingly frustrating, if not particularly surprising, to see her largely getting away with this, and the prime parties responsible are the establishment media. The journalists, editors and commentators who, when they are not actively collaborating, still fail utterly to ask the obvious questions and make the obvious points with anything like the appropriate force, and prefer to spend their energy hounding those actually asking the important questions and making the important points for being insufficiently jingoistic.

    But the list of hostages she has left to fortune and to the continued forbearance of the journalist and editorial classes is long, and getting longer. The almost complete lack of credibility of the Skripal story, the sheer open illegality of the attack on Syria, the failure to consult Parliament before tagging onto Washington’s coattails, the decreasingly credible claims about the pretext for the Syria attack, and its targeting and supposed success.

    Something in all this might yet bring her down, despite the desperate efforts of the dual loyalty and other lobbies determined to protect interventionism, for the benefit of Israel, Washington, other foreigners, and the military budget.

    • Replies: @Verymuchalive
  2. Theresa May, a woman completely out of her depth, fancies herself as Thatcher the Second.

    But not even Maggie would have risked a thermonuclear war for the sake of a blatant lie.

    • Replies: @Paw
  3. “even if he went, the outcome would be a collapse of the state, as in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq, producing chaos in which Isis and al-Qaeda will flourish”

    Unfortunately, though it speaks very badly for my government (UK), after Iraq and Libya I’ve come to the conclusion that chaos in Syria is considered a feature, not a bug.

  4. Philip Owen says: • Website

    Why did we need to get involved? Ah yes. Brexit.

  5. Anon[291] • Disclaimer says:
    @Philip Owen

    Please explain for a non-Brit.

    • Replies: @Longinus
    , @Randal
  6. Longinus says:

    For one thing she has to secure a trade deal with the US

    • Replies: @NoseytheDuke
    , @Aslangeo
  7. Paw says:
    @Tsar Nicholas

    But it is impossible to start the next war with the truth..
    It seems to be the end. Either the END of USA or the End of USA and the world.

  8. @Philip Owen

    Be fair, Philip.

    Cameron 2010, with Brexit not on the horizon, would have wanted to bomb. And when he lost the 2013 vote in Parliament he helped keep the war going with arms, cash and training for the bad guys.

    • Agree: Tsar Nicholas
    • Replies: @Aslangeo
  9. @Longinus

    The UK has been a little terrier following the US into senseless wars since long before Brexit. Tony Bliar was instrumental in selling the Iraq war to the American people when he gave a speech to both houses of Congress.

  10. Aslangeo says:
    @Philip Owen

    Brexit has diminished the UK influence, hence the need to throw the limited weight they have around to show the masses that Britain still matters.

    Also a distraction from the appalling state of the NHS, the scandal of the Windrush generation, the scandal of the rape clause ( where poor women wanting child support for more than two children have to prove that subsequent children are the result of rape), and other general government incompetence and inhumanity.

    The Tories need to whip up patriotism in order to gain support, well it worked for Maggie in 1983

  11. Aslangeo says:

    True, Cameron would have wanted to bomb. I do wish Britain would stop interfering on concentrate on the domestic problems that affect our daily lives , but politicians feel the need to strut about on the world stage and virtue signal by bombing the perceived bad guy

  12. Aslangeo says:

    The Maybot does want a trade deal with America, but the yanks don’t do favours. They have a tribute giver attitude to foreign governments. Britain’s delusion of a special realitionship is sad to behold, like some needy discarded mistress. Make a deal by all means but you will never get a good one by being a supplicant, particularly wil a real estate bully like Trump

  13. Randal says:

    Philip Owen is (by his description, not mine, which I’m sure he will not deny) a liberal and a “free trade” advocate. Such people in the British context are understandably opposed to Brexit, but in many if not most cases are as obsessively fanatical about their anti-Brexitness as the average US Democrat is in his or her obsessive Trump Derangement.

    Thus someone like Owen attributing anything they see as bad to “Brexit” is approximately equivalent to a US Democrat blaming Trump for anything bad.

    Now I don’t mean any disrespect to Owen himself here – clearly we disagree politically on many, perhaps most, things but he seems like a decent sort generally. But speaking as someone who has been observing and opposing the UK government’s consistent interventionist policies going back to the Kosovo war, through Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya and now Syria, it’s perfectly clear that there is a lot more going on here than “Brexit”. Brexit or not, the May regime would be obediently trotting along behind the Trump regime’s latest bombing for Israel.

  14. @Randal

    As in the US, the British MSM is an oligopoly. In case you hadn’t noticed, even the ^right of centre” tabloid the Daily Express was recently bought by Trinity Mirror, the owners of the “socialist” Daily Mirror. No objection was raised by the Competition authorities.
    Obviously, fewer and fewer people read the Dead Tree Press. They are becoming less and less influential by the month. If you are intelligent and independent, you don’t get your news from the MSM. The latter represent a very narrow range of views from Left-Liberal to Neoliberal/Neocon.
    Those who do get their information, in the interim, have been characterised as ” low information browsers” by one American media exponent.
    If we still lived in even a semi-capitalist society, proper competition laws – or rather continued application of competition laws would have prevented this – whether in the Dead Tree Press or in the internet.
    But you know that anyway.

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