No child of God”, President Donald Trump said on Saturday, as United States missiles slammed into the al-Shayrat Air Base in Syria, “should ever suffer such horror”. He is right. The children, women and men who died from the chemical weapons unleashed by the pilots from al-Shayrat over Khan Sheikhoun this week were victims of an obscenity that ought not to, in a civilised world, go unpunished. Yet, given that the war in Syria has claimed over 5,00,000 lives, and displaced almost 12 million, the significant question must be whether President Trump’s actions will hasten its end or not. The answer, sadly, is almost certainly in the negative. The United States’ unilateral action has rendered even more fraught the prospect of unified military action against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda — the precondition for the creation of a new, legitimate political order in Syria. It will, moreover, embolden a degraded Syrian opposition to continue to hold out against the government, thus prolonging the fighting. Worst of all, it will do nothing to protect civilian lives: Footage from al-Shayrat shows that the air base, long hardened against precisely such strikes, suffered only moderate air strikes.
This said, it is important to ask some hard questions about how we got here — a story in which Trump makes, at best, a cameo appearance. Ever since 9/11, western foreign policy has been driven by deeply ideological notions, represented by both the left and right as the defence of fundamental human rights like individual freedoms and
democracy. Following the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, President Barack Obama’s government was led — against, by some accounts, its own better judgment — to go along with efforts to secure regime change in Libya and Syria.
These efforts imploded authoritarian despotisms, but only to replace them with jihadist tyrannies.
For progress, the world may need to turn from empty human rights sermonising to the business of making choices between imperfect, compromised actors. Bashar al-Assad’s government has blood on its hands, as do all others in the Syrian theatre. But it — along with some Kurdish groups — seems alone in a position to deliver the rudiments of a functional, relatively secular state structure. The opposition forces the United States backs need to be encouraged to make a deal that acknowledges their military weakness, and decisively break with the jihadists. These tasks, though, are likely too much like hard work to attract Trump’s attention. In 2013, after the Syrian government’s first chemical weapons attack, President Barack Obama held back on his threats to bomb Syria precisely because he knew it would achieve nothing. Trump’s claim to be enforcing civilisational red lines thus means precisely nothing: His missiles, in fact, had no target.