After the United States, Britain and France rained missiles on Syria over the weekend, questions about the legitimacy and effectiveness of the action have come to the fore. For the critics, the absence of prior approval by the United Nations Security Council reflects the growing Western disregard for international law. Supporters of the decision say Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own citizens is outrageous. Severe punishment, they say, is necessary to deter the production and use of these outlawed weapons of mass destruction. Critics, however, point to the fact that the Western bombings took place before an international team of experts verified the allegations on the use of chemical weapons. Whatever the merits of these arguments, the nuances of international law and ethical considerations in the use of force — just cause, last resort, proportionality and high probability of success — have long ceased to be relevant in the Middle East. What seems to matter is only politics and power — international and domestic.
The Middle East in general and Syria in particular have become victims of renewed great power rivalry, intensifying regional conflict and the breakdown of the internal political order in many countries. It is not just the Western powers and Russia who are using military force to pursue their political objectives in the region. Regional actors like Iran, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Israel are all deeply involved in Syria’s brutal civil war. This new dynamic has cut across the traditional lines of the political divide in the Middle East. The UN Security Council’s rejection of a Russian resolution condemning the Western bombing of Syria underlines the profound international divisions. Only China and Bolivia backed the Russian resolution, the US and its European allies voted against. The only Arab country currently on the Security Council, Kuwait, sided with the West. Four other developing countries abstained.
It could even be said that the Western bombing of Syria makes little material difference to the balance of power on the ground. Even as he claimed that the bombing was successful, US President Donald Trump is signalling that he has no intention to be drawn deeper into the Syrian conflict. He wants to bring home the 2,000-odd US troops currently in Syria. The Western use of force was carefully designed to avoid an escalation of the confrontation with Russia and Iran, the main military backers of Damascus. The attack, which avoided targeting the Syrian leadership and its military command, also underlines the fact that the West is no longer interested either in ousting Assad from power or joining Russia in imposing regional peace. On a seemingly winning track, Assad seems to have no incentive for internal reconciliation. The tragedy in Syria, then, will continue to unfold.