The images of children foaming at the mouth after two alleged chemical attacks on the then rebel-held enclave of Douma earlier this month stood as a rebuke to the international community – just like the one almost exactly a year ago on the town of Khan Shaykhun, and another near Damascus in 2013.
Around 70 people are believed to have been killed and up to 500 injured as a result of the latest atrocities – a figure that can be added to the toll of more than 1,700 who have lost their lives since the Syrian army first launched its assault on Eastern Ghouta, where Douma is located, in February.
The region, close to the capital, has been under siege since 2013. Home to around 400,000, it has been described as a “hell on earth” by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
In recent weeks, the BBC news has shown footage of doctors, bereft of basic medical supplies, trying to cope with patients injured in constant bombardments. Many attacks have involved barrel bombs – crude incendiary devices filled with shrapnel – which cause indiscriminate slaughter. But it is the use of chemical weapons, so soon after the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, that galvanised the West into fresh action against the Russian-backed Syrian regime.
Last week, Donald Trump, who once berated his predecessor, Barack Obama, for being too open about his military strategy, warned Russia that new missiles would be coming “nice and new and smart”, adding: “You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it.”
While German chancellor Angela Merkel ruled out involvement in military action, other European leaders, including French president Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May, seemed keen to offer support.
On Thursday, May recalled cabinet for an emergency meeting after which she said ministers had “agreed on the need to take action” and would work closely with Trump on the international response.
After his initial response, the US president dialled down the rhetoric and said he had not yet decided whether or when to attack. But in the early hours of yesterday morning, he announced that the US, UK and France had already launched air strikes on several chemical weapons sites. “Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path or if it will join with civilised nations as a force for stability and peace,” he said.
Any inference from this joint action that there was a political consensus on how to respond to Bashar al-Assad’s latest provocation, however, would be misplaced. What the last few days of sabre-rattling have demonstrated once again is how complex a problem Syria – which is at the centre of a proxy war between the US and Russia and Saudi Arabia and Iran – poses for the West.
It has also exposed the extent to which the UK’s post-Brexit reliance on America as an ally is forcing May’s hand. Despite the gung-ho nature of some media commentators, polls suggest the British public has little appetite for greater military involvement in another Middle Eastern conflict zone. At the same time, Labour and the SNP both opposed any decision on air strikes being taken without a full parliamentary debate and vote, similar to the one which David Cameron lost in 2013.
Thus, May became lodged between a rock and a hard place; she wanted to support the American president – who, along with Macron, expelled Russian diplomats over the Skripal poisoning. Yet, she knew there was no guarantee she would gain sufficient parliamentary support, so went ahead without it. Now she will face a backlash from those MPs and members of the public who believe the cabinet should not have acted unilaterally.
Speaking before the air strikes were launched, SNP defence spokesman Stewart McDonald insisted the government only had a mandate for air strikes on Isis and that any cabinet decision to carry them out on regime targets would constitute “mission creep”.
“Not a single international forum has backed military action: Nato hasn’t backed it, the EU hasn’t backed it, the UN hasn’t backed it. She would be acting without any parliamentary consensus beyond Paris and Washington, without any parliamentary debate or approval and without any consensus from the public,” he says.
May said she judged the action to be in Britain’s national interest. “This is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change,” she added, suggesting the action would be limited. But by 5am yesterday #notinmynameTheresaMay was trending. Perhaps the Prime Minister believes a show of strength will bolster her position, but it could just as easily have disastrous consequences for her minority government.
Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at St Andrews University’s School of International Relations, believes the public has become inured to the suffering in Syria. “What is going on – what has been going on for the last seven years – is appalling, but it’s one of those situations which, as sad as it is, we seem to have become numb to,” he says.
While this is doubtless true of some, there are plenty of others who do care but are bewildered about the best course of action. What 17 years of war in the Middle East has taught them is that intervention – particularly piecemeal intervention with no commitment to stabilising the country in the long-term – can do more harm than good.
Not intervening earlier against the Russian-backed Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s allowed genocide to take place, while the air strikes that followed brought all sides to the negotiating table. But intervention in Libya was allowed to develop into what Obama later described as a “shitshow”. A report by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in 2016 found Cameron’s government had acted with no proper intelligence analysis, drifted into an unannounced goal of regime change and shirked its moral responsibility to help reconstruct the country following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
Fuelling public scepticism is a sense that, while US and UK air strikes against Isis proved successful, previous western action against the Syrian regime has merely served to escalate the conflict.
Arguably, Obama’s strategy, which was to provide anti-tank missiles to some factions of the Syrian Free Army, contributed to its fragmentation, allowing al-Qaeda offshoots and Isis to gain a foothold, while also encouraging direct Russian involvement.
Nor have previous air strikes made much impact; the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat Airbase in retaliation for the chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun caused short-term damage but did nothing to alter the course of the war. This time round, Trumps’s advance warning allowed the Syrian army to empty its bases. However, the targets of the current attacks are said to be chemical weapons sites not disclosed to international weapons inspectors when the Syrian regime pledged to destroy its arsenal back in 2014. The question of what happens if you blow up a stockpile of nerve agents has not been addressed.
Alongside this is the issue of how Vladimir Putin will respond. Russia has already said it will shoot down any missiles, and on Saturday morning it reiterated there could be no air strikes without consequences. Such was the fear raised by last week’s threats that for a while #worldwarthree was trending on Twitter.
For some, distrust, sown by the false intelligence on weapons of mass destruction used to justify the Iraq War, runs so deep that they challenge the West’s assurances that Assad was behind the most recent chemical attacks. Why would he go out of his way to provoke the US, they ask, when he is so close to winning? Only a few days ago Syrian troops took control of Eastern Ghouta.
Others point out inconsistencies in the West’s position. Why are governments – which have been willing to tolerate the Syrian regime’s use of barrel bombs – suddenly galvanised into action when chemical weapons are involved? Is it merely the method of killing that matters, not the fact of it? Yet other chemical attacks have gone unchallenged. Also, how can the UK take the moral high ground over Syria while selling billions of pounds worth of arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen – a conflict the UN recently described as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster?
For Dr Omar Imady, deputy director for outreach & information dissemination at St Andrews University’s Centre for Syrian Studies, there is no doubt who was responsible for the chemical attacks. “We have had maybe 24 such attacks in varying degrees and intensities with different types of toxic chemicals – sometimes chlorine, sometimes sarin, sometimes something in between,” he says. “And in several cases the UN has confirmed that this was done by the Syrian regime. Then, if you look at the circumstances: you have an encircled area, the only side that has access to helicopters and aeroplanes is the Syrian regime and its allies.
“In addition, these rebels are not foreign; they are indigenous inhabitants of Douma, so you would have to envisage a situation where they would somehow orchestrate an attack of this nature on their own family members.
“As for the question: ‘Why would they do this if they are winning anyway?’ – You have to understand the spite mentality. In carrying out such an act exactly a year after Trump ordered his first strike, the Syrian regime spites the West and ridicules its attempt to discipline it.
“The Russians too feel intimidated with regards to Nato expansion and the fact the Ukranians have fallen into a government that is pro-West, so they want to show how they can transform Syria into something extremely uncomfortable on the level of refugees; on the level of the type of things the West is appalled by.”
The tragedy for the country, says Imady, is that it is caught between the willingness of the Syrians, Russians and Iranians to do anything to fulfil their objectives and the West’s reluctance to fully engage either diplomatically or militarily.
“Diplomatically, Obama was willing to negotiate on things related to Syria, but he was not willing to negotiate on issues that were truly important to Russia, such as Nato expansionism or Ukraine; in fact, he would take measures that would irritate them,” he says.
“Then, when it comes to the military side, the US’s measures are always half-measures: they send 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles even though they know this will not achieve anything, it will just humiliate the regime and make it more determined to show the population that the attempt to discipline it has failed.
“Those are the tension points – the Syrian people’s tragedy continues. That’s the real story and no-one quite fathoms the numbers. We talk about 500,000 documented people killed, but for each one killed there are at least five injured, then there’s the arrests, the people who were disappeared, tortured, displaced – it could easily reach five million directly affected.”
Imady’s preferred military response to the crisis, in the absence of a negotiated political settlement, would be the introduction of no-fly zones to protect the people of Syria from aerial bombardment, but this would require a much greater western commitment.
“If Trump wants to do something significant then a more sustained assault would have a bigger impact, but then there would be collateral damage: you would have the West punishing the regime and, in punishing the regime, killing more civilians,” he says.
“A more dramatic stand would be to declare a line over the south as being a no-fly zone. To protect civilians in this way would be meaningful, but would entail a willingness for confrontation because you will be telling not only the Syrians, but also the Russians they cannot put their planes there.”
The extent to which Russia might retaliate is the great unknown. Syria is strategically unimportant to it, other than as a means of baiting the West, but still its pride would be at stake.
“The key question is the extent to which the Russians are willing to be humiliated in Syria. There’s a line at which they will decide they must do something,” says Imady.
O’Brien insists Russia can’t really damage the West in any serious way in a direct assault. “It doesn’t have the capabilities to do that so I think a lot of the Russian response is bluster,” he says. “We are not going to have a Third World War over Syria because it doesn’t matter enough to them and because they cannot win it.”
Even so, he does not detect any appetite for a sustained intervention in the West. Some of that reluctance stems from a recognition that there is no obvious endgame. Get rid of Assad and who or what is going to replace him? Collapse the regime and the country is likely to be plunged into further chaos.
“I don’t think anyone sees a rational settlement. Are you going to find a way to bring these two sides together? One answer might be partition but no-one wants to talk about partition,” says O’Brien.
Labour and the SNP believe military action will exacerbate the situation. “We are not a pacifist party – we have supported military action in the past when it has been mandated by the United Nations, though I accept that is never in a million years going to happen in this instance because of Russia,” says McDonald.
“But there are two other aspects: what would it achieve and what would the consequences be? There is a consensus that limited air strikes would produce no real change on the ground. It would be a form of gesture politics.
“As for the repercussions: we know the Syrian Air force is already moving its assets into Russian air bases so you are talking about potentially bombing them and that changes everything.
“The Conservative MP Bob Seely [a former soldier who served in Iraq and Afghanistan] has also suggested there could be a retaliation against the Baltic countries because what Russia wants above all else is to destabilise the Nato alliance.”
Yet if you reject military intervention: what then? Surely the international community can’t continue to look on impassively as Syrians are gassed. McDonald would like to see greater sanctions on the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre – the government agency responsible for the development, production and transportation of chemical warfare.
“There are things that could be done, for example to halt the import of certain chemicals such as isopropyl alcohol, which is needed for making sarin, but not controlled by the OPCW [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons],” he says.
He would also like to see the UK compiling a list of perpetrators for future war crimes tribunals. “Britain and its allies have a world-class infrastructure when it comes to intelligence-gathering and could play a role in cataloguing everyone – the drivers, the pilots and the generals – who are involved in the delivery of these weapons so that when the time comes people can face proper judicial penalties.”
Instead the UK government has opted for air strikes. Trump may claim they are aimed at precise targets, but previous experience suggests there will once again be civilian victims. At the same time the battle of propaganda is also being ramped up. Since I started writing this piece, the Kremlin has claimed the chemical attacks were “staged” by the UK (just as it claimed MI5 were responsible for the poisoning of the Skripals).
While the US and Russia plot their moves, the people of Syria continue to mourn their dead and the loss of their former lives. The war may be nearing an end, with Assad the victor, but the suffering goes on.