AMEER ALHALBI/AFP/Getty Images
The drumbeat gets louder by the hour. The march to war quickens to a run. Trumpian tweets are flying, and soon American missiles will be too.
Meanwhile, on the media front-line, stern pieces are written by commentators demanding that the vile Syrian dictator be given a serious slap in the chops.
Syrians in what is, or was, an opposition neighbourhood have been the victim of a horrific chemical attack. Children were killed. The images were heartbreaking. The Russian-backed Syrian regime is a thugocracy.
With that being the case, usually I would be joining the chorus of calls for action. In 2003 – like many radicalised by 9/11 in 2001 – I was for the invasion of Iraq, to check rogue states potentially in search of WMD. It is difficult to have experienced and promoted that relentless drumbeat for war and not almost exactly 15 years later be chastened by the memory of how the certainty of policy makers and us armchair pundits turned to despair, and, much worse, bloody chaos for the Iraqi people.
With that in mind, should the West not be extremely wary about looming action in Syria? Post-Iraq it at least seems sensible to ask the basics. What are our war aims? And what is the plan?
Those are, history teaches us, the necessary key questions ahead of conflict. This time, convincing answers to those questions are not forthcoming.
Whenever the question is asked – what are trying to achieve exactly? – it is said that the noble aim is to send a message that chemical warfare is outside the norms and will punished. But chemical warfare has been used in Syria time and again. We did almost nothing, until now after five years we say it is urgent, when the Obama administration – so sophisticated, so lauded – backed off and helped make it worse.
Another doubt occurs. If the Syrian dictator is using such weaponary, along with mass torture, shouldn’t Assad be removed, not just knocked about to make us feel better? If that is the game, what is the plan for his replacement or will it emerge, like magic, in Iraq?
What troubles me most – as much as the lack of a clear plan that can be explained to voters who pay the bills – is the potential for a mistake to trigger an escalation, perhaps even in the Baltic states in Europe. Although the Russians should not be taken at their own estimation – with their shoddy armed forces cranked out by a broken down economy – they would surely feel the need to lash out if, say, the Americans misdirected their firepower and killed 100 Russian troops this weekend in Syria. Or perhaps logic dictates that if we are to do it we should do it properly. Perhaps we should be taking on Russia, which Obama allowed free rein in Syria, and Iran. That would mean full-scale war, which sounds risky and unwise.
There are not easy answers. Anyone who read Robert Fox’s superb piece for Reaction this week, explaining the Syrian calamity, will have been reminded of the impossibility of the problem. It is a catastrophe made worse by Western prevarication earlier in the conflict.
But that cannot be unwound. It seems, even though Trump has pulled back a little in his tweets, that action is coming.
So… before it begins. What are our war aims? What is the plan?