Editorial: Attack by the U.S., U.K., and France may create greater chaos in Syria

The United States, the United Kingdom, and France have carried out joint military strikes in Syria. U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the attack after concluding that the government of Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against the stronghold of an opposition group, wounding and killing civilians.

The use of chemical weapons is completely unacceptable, but will the situation be defused through armed force? We are concerned that the attack may only create greater chaos in Syria.

The Trump administration fired missiles against Syrian targets last April on the same grounds that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons. However, similar tragedies involving the suspected use of chemical weapons took place repeatedly after that. There is no guarantee that military intervention will prevent the further use of chemical weapons.

The problem is that the framework of the U.N. Security Council is not producing a solution. Despite days of deliberations, the member states were unable to reach any points of compromise because Russia, which backs the Assad regime, is at odds with the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. These countries are veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council.

The Syrian government has persistently denied accusations of chemical weapons use. Although an independent investigative body should be established to determine who actually used the banned weapons, Russia was opposed to the idea and no agreement was made. Russia’s attitude creates suspicion that they are seeking to conceal the truth.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said, “There is no practical alternative to the use of force.” Her judgement seems to stem from the feeling that a united response is difficult as long as Russia is part of the U.N. Security Council. However, the attack will only worsen the rift between Russia and these three nations, obstructing the path toward path.

In fact, Russia rejects the U.S. accusation that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, claiming that Syria has been “framed.” Voicing strong opposition to the air strikes by the United States and its allies, Russia said, “This is a blatant violation of international law and an attack on a sovereign state without proper grounds.”

In Syria, the nations that were once aligned are now acting in their own self-interest after the so-called Islamic State, an extremist group, was decimated by their military operations. Syria is now a site of struggle for dominance among major powers.

Mr. Trump has been considering an early withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria due to financial concerns and other reasons following the decline of the Islamic State last year. His government would prefer not to become mired in a long-term involvement in Syria and the recent attack may be simply a show of force.

During the previous administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama, the United States warned the Assad regime that the use of chemical weapons would trigger a military response, but Mr. Obama put off this decision and Mr. Trump was critical of Mr. Obama’s inaction. When similar suspicions of the use of chemical weapons were raised last April, Mr. Trump chose to move forward, independently, with air strikes in Syria. At a time of diminishing public support, his actions come across as publicity stunts aimed at midterm elections looming this fall.

Meanwhile, Russia has become increasingly hostile toward the United States, arguing that they will not allow the United States to repeat the history of Iraq in Syria. The United States initiated the war in Iraq on the grounds that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and ousted Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003.

However, such attitudes by the major powers only exacerbate divisions among the international community. We must not forget that the situation in Syria is a humanitarian crisis.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres issued a statement which urged all member states to refrain from pursuing any actions that will “worsen the situation and inflict more suffering on the people of Syria.” He also called on the members of the Security Council to fulfill their responsibility to “maintain international peace and security.” What is now needed is a return to basics and a pursuit of pathways that can foster peace without the use of force.

(Originally published on April 15, 2018)