The Profound Danger of US Escalation in Syria
by Max Smith
The US cruise missile strikes on Syria have led to further rhetorical escalation from major US diplomatic figures. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, said on Sunday April 9th that the Trump administration will “not stop here. If he needs to do more, he will do more.” She also indicated that US policy regarding Syria has made an abrupt about-turn, asserting that “there is no political solution with Assad at the lead. That’s not something the United States has decided, it’s something the international community has decided.”
As with any deployment of the hugely vague term ‘international community’, it is worth being deeply suspicious of the use of it here. It is unclear exactly which community Haley is referring to, or which judgment that community has allegedly made. Assad’s rule has been unspeakably violent and callous, but there is a vast and crucial difference between a consensus that a government is vicious and a consensus that the same government cannot play a role in a political solution to an incredibly complex and brutal civil war.
Haley’s assertion that Assad must be ousted suggests that the US is now seeking regime change within Syria. Such a policy would be deeply dangerous and would undoubtedly destabilize an already shattered region even further, leading to countless more deaths, an escalation of an unimaginably brutal civil war, as well as an escalation of the proxy war being waged across the region between major regional and global powers, especially Saudi Arabia, Iran, the US, and Russia. The parallels between these signals and actions by the Trump administration and the escalations in Vietnam and Iraq are clear and unnerving.
Trump’s airstrike in Syria did not need to be followed by this apparent policy shift. The strikes themselves were essentially useless: a puerile, impulsive reaction to an undeniably outrageous chemical attack, his reaction did so little significant damage to the targeted airfield that the airfield was in use by the Syrian government a few hours later. Such a criticism does not carry with it the implicit argument that an actually damaging strike would have made the decision to intervene militarily a good one; any kind of military intervention would have been unnecessary and a mistake, but the fact that Trump’s intervention was also verifiably ineffective compounds the sense that the decision was entirely without merit.
If the strikes do produce in further escalation in Syria, that escalation will bring with it more deaths, more atrocities, more uncertainty and a further destabilisation of the entire region. If the strikes do not result in further escalation in Syria, then they were a pointless, callous, expensive and profoundly dangerous decision. Whichever outcome ends up being true, the strikes display a deep disregard for the overwhelming complexities of the civil war in Syria and for the lives placed at risk by further intervention. Trump’s assertion that the strikes were born out of a sudden flourishing of compassion within himself is entirely inconsistent with the unchanged policy of his administration to oppose refugees from the region. The rhetoric of the administration, whether from representatives like Nikki Haley or from the president himself, belies the fundamental irresponsibility, impulsiveness, and lack of compassion which this military intervention has lain bare.