The ghost of Ghouta came back to haunt the international community this week.
In the early hours of August 21st 2013 opposition controlled suburbs in the Ghouta area of Damascus were hit by rockets containing the chemical agent sarin, estimates vary on the subsequent number of deaths, but several hundred if not over a thousand men, women and children were left dead, with thousands more showing neurotoxic symptoms and requiring treatment in local hospitals. The evidence against the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad as being responsible for the attacks was compelling, President Obama had previously stated the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government would cross a red line and entail US military action.
The rest is now a matter of history.
The UK government sought support from the House of Commons to back up the US in any action against the Syrian regime, but was defeated, in large part because of the then leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband. In probably his most significant single act as Labour leader, he originally equivocated before deciding to vote against immediately sanctioning Assad for the use of chemical weapons. The loss of UK support undoubtedly influenced the already hesitating Obama administration and the President failed to back-up his own red line, in the eyes of many undermining US credibility and handing Bashar al Assad a carte blanche to do as he pleased in Syria.
Three and a half years later the largest (though not only) chemical attack since Ghouta has just taken place in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria, leaving dozens of innocent civilians, including young children, dead. Donald Trump, for all his many failings since coming into office, has already shown a marked difference with his predecessor’s preference for inaction. On the President’s orders last night the US fired 59 Tomahawk missiles in targeted strikes on the Shayrat airfield from which this week’s chemical attack was believed to have been launched by the Assad regime. The swift and powerful response was clearly designed to give a message to Assad: use chemical weapons at your peril.
This was an important signal to send to Damascus, and Moscow, it is one that should have been sent in 2013, the price of that failure to act has been clear to see in the bloody continuation of the Syrian civil war. In 2016, in spite of the ongoing uniterreupted bloodshed in Syria and the rise of ISIS, Obama defended his decision not to enforce the red line, not least on the grounds he was breaking with Washington orthodoxy. Breaking with the Washington foreign policy establishment was a central theme of the Obama Presidency’s foreign agenda. a reaction to Iraq and Afghanistan, the results have been mixed at best, rapprochement with some old US foes, a vacuum giving dictator’s free reign to terrorise in other parts of the globe. The mismanagement of the Iraq war resulted in a predictable correction in the following administration, but like all such reflexive policy movements it went too far the other way.
Non-intervention is a decision just like intervention, and also has consequences. The Bush and Blair governments have faced repeated criticism for the aftermath of their decision to invade Iraq in 2003. President Obama, and Ed Miliband, and others, should likewise be held accountable for their choice not to punitively sanction Assad for the Ghouta attack. In any free society such cross-examination of our leader’s decisions is an important part of the democratic process. It is a freedom denied to the Syrian people for the decades of Assad family rule.
Donald Trump’s decision to strike back at the Assad regime for its indiscriminate murder of Syrian civilians with chemical weapons may have unpredictable consequences, not least with Russia, but it was the morally correct decision to make. That Jeremy Corbyn, (and presumably Ed Miliband, who has remained unusually quiet since the attack on Khan Sheikhoun) have condemned the attacks speaks volumes about the priorities of the current Labour leadership. Many moderate Labour voices have applauded last night’s strike, but Corbyn’s response was that the US needed to focus on the Geneva peace talks, displaying, at best, troubling naivety. These are the same peace talks that have made no significant progress because the Assad regime sees no need to properly engage. Since Obama’s 2013 decision not to punish it for using chemical weapons on its own people the government has felt free to act with impunity in Syria. The only real chance of peace is if the Assad regime thinks it has anything to lose by continuing to wage war on the Syrian people. President Trump at least gave the Assads’ pause for thought last night, and he reinstated a 100 year old red line against the abhorrent use of chemical weapons, in doing so he struck a blow for humanity against dictators everywhere.