by PAX General Director Jan Gruiters
The United States has attacked a Syrian air force base near Homs. The attack was in reaction to the use of chemical weapons, dropped by Syrian air force planes which took off from the targeted base, against innocent civilians. The horrible images of civilian victims, including many children, led to an unexpected reversal in Washington. Until now, military actions by the international coalition led by the US had only targeted the Islamic State and other armed jihadist groups.
The use of US cruise missiles against Bashar al-Assad’s government sends a powerful message against the use of chemical weapons. The US military action falls under the concept of ‘the responsibility to protect’, the international community’s responsibility to protect civilians against the most egregious crimes. However, war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed continuously in Syria over the past six years.
In 2013, PAX was already urging serious consideration be given to the use of military means to take out the Syrian air force, as part of a political strategy to protect civilians in Syria. At that time, civilians were already being bombed on a daily basis by conventional weapons, cluster munitions, improvised barrel bombs and chemical weapons. These crimes went unpunished due in part to a divided UN Security Council, but also because the campaign against the Islamic State was given priority over the protection of civilians. This week’s US military operation could signal an end to a situation in which the Assad government and its allies have felt they could bomb civilians and civilian targets with impunity.
However, the US intervention is also quite risky. It remains to be seen if this action brings the conflict any closer to a just political solution. Until now, the current US administration has taken little initiative in finding a political solution; just last week, Assad remaining in power was an acceptable option in Washington. The attack on the air base looks more like an impulsive reaction to the attack with a chemical weapon than part of a political strategy.
In addition, the US attack may have regional consequences. President Assad is supported by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. In neighbouring Iraq, the Iraqi army is supported by an international coalition against the Islamic State. Tension has also been mounting between Hezbollah and Israel. In both cases, an escalation would be extremely risky.
It is also questionable whether the protection of civilians is central to US policy. The number of casualties resulting from the attack on the air force base near Homs was quite low, but the marked increase in the number of civilian deaths from US and its allies’ attacks on the Islamic State and al-Qaeda indicate that the rules of engagement have been significantly loosened. It is incomprehensible that under these circumstances, the US only allows a few thousand Syrian refugees per year, and aims to stop allowing any at all.
This week´s US military intervention can only contribute to the protection of civilians against war crimes and a just peace in Syria if it is part of a consistent and unified political strategy. Until now, this strategy has been painfully absent.Protection of Civilians, Middle East