It’s anyone’s guess why the French president, Emmanuel Macron, takes such pride in claiming to have persuaded Donald Trump to keep US forces in Syria for the “long term”. Mr Trump himself declared “mission accomplished” while his defence secretary, James Mattis, called the 105 missile strikes against three targets near Damascus and Homs which the US, Britain and France say housed chemical weapons facilities a “one-time shot.”
Ironically, Syria’s president, Bashar al Assad, may have emerged stronger than before from the attacks. He has regained Douma which was the last major town in rebel hands. Theresa May has explicitly ruled out regime change as a Western objective. Nor, she says, is Britain taking sides in the civil war that has raged for seven years sending millions of refugees out of Syria.
No one pretends that Mr Assad’s regime is the epitome of liberal democratic values. His Ba’ath Socialist Party has held power since 1963. His family has ruled Syria since 1971. Discontent is inevitable. It erupted into civil war in 2011 when Mr Assad bombed protesters during the so-called Arab Spring instead of trying to win them over. But it’s his friendly ties with Iran and the Hezbollah and the support and weapons he receives from Russia that really condemns Mr Assad in American and Israeli eyes. He is also a thorn in the side of the Sunni absolute monarchies in Qatar and Saudi Arabia who fund and arm the rebels with US backing. That he is not a fundamentalist is probably a disqualification in their eyes. The late Saddam Hussain was also secular.
France can claim a historical interest in Syria. While Britain was claiming to fight the Ottoman empire to liberate Arabs, the British and French had secretly agreed to divide the region among themselves after defeating the Turks. Under the secret Sykes-Picot pact – as it was called – France acquired Syria and the Lebanon. Tzarist Russia was supposed to get Istanbul. Britain was promised the lion’s share. Following the Russian Revolution details of the deal were disclosed in Pravda and Izvestia so that “the British were embarrassed, the Arabs dismayed and the Turks delighted”.
When the First World War ended, the British protégé, Prince Faisal, one of the sons of the dispossessed Shereef of Mecca to whom crowns had been promised, was proclaimed king of Syria. The Syrians never took to this foreign prince, and the French were never reconciled to “losing” Syria. Between them, they saw to it that Faisal’s reign didn’t last more than a few. The Syrian republic that was proclaimed was then strongly under French influence.
France has never been reconciled to the erosion of its global – especially West Asian – role. But it can assert itself only by clinging to the coat tails of more potent powers. In 1956 the French invaded Egypt in the wake of the Israelis and British in a vain attempt to capture the Suez Canal, an adventure that Jawaharlal Nehru denounced as “naked aggression.” Capitalising on France’s role in joining the US and Britain this time, Mr Macron suggested on television that it was thanks to his influence that the bombardment was limited. Whatever reason Mr Trump — who is “morally unfit to be president” according to his sacked Federal Bureau of Investigation chief, James Comey — gives for attacking Syria, British action is faulted on two main grounds. First, the strikes pre-empted the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons whose inspectors were scheduled to visit Syria the very next day. Second, Mrs May’s action is seen by many as a violation of democracy. It is recalled that the former prime minister, Tony Blair, declared in 2003 when he launched his attack on Iraq, “It is right that this house debate this issue and pass judgment. That is the democracy that is our right but that others struggle for in vain.”
A House of Lords constitutional inquiry endorsed this in 2006, and the future foreign secretary William Hague enthusiastically advocated it in 2007. The government pledged in 2011 that it would observe the convention, except in an emergency. But there was no debate before the significant escalation of British involvement in Afghanistan in 2006. Approval for intervention in Libya in 2011 was only asked for, and given, after it had begun. In 2013, however, David Cameron sought approval for a punitive strike on Syria. This was refused and his acceptance of the refusal appeared to mark a turning point. The following year, again observing the convention, Mr Cameron asked for and was granted approval for intervention against the terrorist organisation that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. It appeared to establish a parliamentary convention that Mrs May has rejected.
Her reason is that despite being a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, Mr Assad uses outlawed chemical weapons against his people. Delay in acting after the suspected chemical attack on Douma would have appeared to condone this, she says. But when she says it was in “the national interest” of the United Kingdom to deter the use of chemical weapons, she is actually unveiling a range of political issues, domestic and foreign, that may have influenced her decision on the eve of the Commonwealth summit in London.
Like France, but much more so, Britain has a historic past in West Asia. Britain’s superpower links are also involved. Russia’s alleged use of a nerve agent last month against a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, who now lives in Salisbury, and his daughter Yulia, visiting from Moscow, dragged Syria into the realm of Mrs May’s domestic politics. She explicitly links the strikes on Syrian chemical weapons targets to the Salisbury poisoning which she blames on Russia.
Hans Blix, the former United Nations chief weapons inspector, wouldn’t have accepted Mrs May’s lofty humanitarian argument. As he tartly pointed out once, the US, UK and France are not authorised “global policemen”. Even if they were, international law does not explicitly sanction military action against the use of chemical weapons. If it did, the US would have to be brought to book for poisoning Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos with 20 million gallons of defoliant and herbicides (including the notorious Agent Orange) that killed 400,000 Vietnamese and resulted in 500,000 children being born with defects.
An American military presence will not end the Syrian civil war. Nevertheless, Mr Macron claims credit for swaying the views of the US president who had said he wanted to pull American troops out of Syria, where about 2,000 — mostly special forces — are supposedly fighting Islamic State terrorists. It will only extend and strengthen the siege to which Mr Assad has been subjected for seven years and which shows no sign of ending.
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.