Martin Horwood writes…Trump’s step into very dangerous waters

American bombing in Syria may make Donald Trump a hero on the streets of Idlib. Those fighting for simple democratic rights in Syria felt bitterly let down by the west in 2013 when we failed to take action the first time there was good evidence that the monstrous Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons on his own people.

We still live with the consequences of that inaction. We were warned our intervention against Assad might make the situation worse. The situation got worse anyway as Assad continued to kill his own people in their thousands with impunity. Millions fled their homes. The sudden rise of Isis/Daesh added a twisted new complication and cover for much larger-scale foreign intervention but by Russia instead of the west. But devastating Russian firepower was aimed much more frequently at the democratic rebels who were pounded into the ground at Aleppo. Increasingly it looked as though Assad’s relentless brutality had paid off and he could even get away with more chemical attacks in clear breach of international law.

So does this make Trump right to strike?

Of course there is domestic US politics at play. Trump accused Obama of weakness over Syria so has to look strong himself. And what better way to demonstrate to his accusers in Congress that he is not in Putin’s pocket? But people can do the right thing for the wrong reason. The people of Idlib won’t mind if Trump had half an eye on Capitol Hill.

There are more serious reasons to be fearful of Trump’s bombing. Putin too has built his domestic image on aggressive nationalism. If conflict with Russian forces accidentally results from US intervention, Putin too will find it difficult to back down. We could suddenly find ourselves in an unpredictable military confrontation between the world’s leading nuclear powers.

And by acting unilaterally, Trump has dealt another blow to a rules-based international system whose first resort is the UN not bombing. George Bush and Tony Blair did their bit to undermine it by invading Iraq and set a precedent that Putin and others have gleefully followed. Putin will see no need to go to the UN to justify his response to this bombing.

We have to hope that at least Assad might be shocked into caution, Putin into negotiation and the UN into action. Wiser heads in the US should respond. But the unpredictable Mr Trump is taking us down a very dangerous path indeed.

* Martin Horwood was LibDem MP for Cheltenham 2005-15 and international affairs spokesperson for the parliamentary party. He is currently chairing the party’s national policy working group on Britain’s Place in the World but is writing in a personal capacity.

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22 Comments

  • paul barker 7th Apr '17 - 11:34am

    Liberals are reasonable & that is good but sometimes we go on being reasonable when the time for reason is past. I loathe Trump but he did the right thing this time, because he let his emotions lead. In the same situation Obama failed because he was led by reason.
    Yes there is a risk that if we do the Right thing we could end up in a War with Russia, its a risk we need to take.

  • Operation Infinite Reach- mark 2.

  • @paul barker Emotions are more important than reason ? That’s a very illiberal, and may I say, unreasonable stance, If you’re sanguine about a war with Russia I’m certainly not.

    Wise words from Martin Horwood.

  • Jonathan Pile 7th Apr '17 - 1:04pm

    I think Tim Farron was right to support US Force supporting Syrian civilians from clear use of Chemical Weapons by the Assad Regime. We should consider an allied approach to a no fly zone for humanitarian safe zone especially from barrel bombs. But I am queasy over Trump’s Putinesque rapid use of surprise Cruise Missiles and suspicious of his grasping the opportunity to distract from Russia Gate. He didn’t consult his allies such as UK over this but informed us just as he did Putin.

  • Denis Mollison 7th Apr '17 - 2:22pm

    @Jonathan Pile – “clear use of Chemical Weapons by the Assad Regime”.
    But is it clear that it was the Assad regime?

  • I just can’t work out what Assad had to gain by a chemical attack of this nature. Leaves me thinking that the truth is far from clear in this whole affair.

  • John Barrett 7th Apr '17 - 5:12pm

    Denis – At this stage it appears to be anything but a clear and confirmed case of use of chemical weapons used by the Assad regime.

    The regime have denied it – “well they would say that anyway” some would say. But is there clear evidence?

    It looks like there was a decision to bomb the regime and that this use of chemical weapons provides the excuse. If there is clear evidence, and the UK Government are happy to support the bombing, the UK Government should know what the evidence is and be prepared to share it.

    If not, we could soon be dragged into supporting further military action without proper justification.

    We have been here before and it is no longer good enough simply to take the word of an ally without concrete proof to support and justify such action.

    Also those who still support the retention and possible use of nuclear weapons, yet throw up their hands at the use of chemical weapons, might wish to clarify just why chemical weapons are so abhorrent while nuclear weapons are so acceptable.

  • angry steve 7th Apr '17 - 6:03pm

    So, Farron defends Trump’s unambiguous war crime, yet this is the party that has banged on about Iraq being illegal for years despite the fact that the legality for that action was ambiguous.

    You’ve just lost my vote.

  • John & Denis The more I reflect on the matter the more I suspect you may be right. We, and I include Tim, should not jump in precipitously on this one – particularly given Trump’s reputation for veracity……… though no doubt the Tories have and will.

    I suspect it may also have been a demonstration to North Korea.

    I also thoroughly support John’s comment on nuclear weapons.

  • David Pocock 8th Apr '17 - 1:21am

    In fairness to trump who is many things, I do not think this is a war crime. Gassing people is.

    I fear much of this is all about trump rather than for principles. To cover his weakness at home he will chuck bombs close to Russians, imagine if one of them hit the part of the airport the Russians were at.

    Then again it might make Putin a little worried about pushing which is needed.

    I agree we should slow down a little and think. I will point out however that not supporting the Iraq war and supporting this is a reasonable position to take. I imagine if trump had used the gas attack as a pretext for invasion then Tim would not have supported it.

  • I would be interested to know what the content of the communication between US and Russia was. Perhaps there is a joint game plan? Russia needs to ensure that the Syrian government do as they tell them. They have now had a demonstration of the real threats they might face. The deaths and injuries were terrible. So are the rest of those throughout the Arab world. And beyond.

  • Denis Loretto 8th Apr '17 - 2:48pm

    There are now two LDV threads running on this and they are predominantly discussing if Trump was right or wrong to do this. With respect few will care what LDV contributors think about that. Trump has now acted and the real discussion should be about what could or should happen next.

    As far as culpability is concerned how could anyone read the front page of Friday’s Guardian and conclude that anyone other than Assad forces could have perpetrated this chemical attack? The only counter to this I have heard is that an Assad bomb may have struck a rebel chemical arms dump. In his Guardian piece Kareem Shaheen, direct from Khan Sheikhun, completely demolishes this possibility. Putin must be furious with Assad and if he has any sense at all he will stop Assad from repeating action with chemical weapons. If this happens and if Trump follows through on the declared intention not to take further direct action in Syria unless further chemical attacks occur, Trump could come well out of this. There are of course all sorts of much more negative consequences which could flow from this high risk USA initiative. We must wait and see.

  • “in 2013 when we failed to take action the first time there was good evidence that the monstrous Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons on his own people.”

    There was a wish to believe there was “good evidence” but that’s not the same as actual evidence. Seymour Hersh comprehensively debunked the ‘Assad did it’ theory. Retired US Colonel Patrick Lang, ex Military Intelligence and Middle East specialist, adds that Martin Dempsey, then Chairman of the (US) Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Obama that the available evidence did not support the view that the Assad regime was responsible. Obama didn’t act not because he was chicken but because he knew it was a false flag.

    http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2017/04/i-told-you-so-idlib-province.html

    In fact we know the jihadis have access to chemical weapons, a fondness for using them, a complete disregard for human life and are expert propagandists.

    So, by far the most likely explanation is that this was, as the Russians say, the by-product of a hit on a jihadi arms and chemicals dump ‘sexed up’ by the ‘White Helmets’, a jihadi propaganda unit sponsored by the CIA. Now they know that whenever they are under pressure they only have to stage another ‘Assad attack’ and the US air force will oblige.

    “The democratic rebels who were pounded into the ground at Aleppo”

    Democratic rebels? Really? Everyone else thinks they were murderous jihadis whose philosophy is explicitly anti-democratic. A great many are foreigners. When the jihadi enclave (part of eastern Aleppo, not “Aleppo” by the way) ended the Syrian government gave safe passage to those who wanted to go to rebel-held Idlib province. The vast majority elected to move to government controlled areas apart from the jihadists and their families. So did the jihadi enclave “fall” (western governments and media version) or was it “liberated” (its resident’ version)?

    Wake up folks. This comes from the same stable that brought us the ‘sexed-up’ dossier and Iraqi WMD. For whatever reason the neocons that wanted war, war, war back then want still more.

  • angry steve 8th Apr '17 - 4:10pm

    @David Pocock

    It really doesn’t matter at all whether you think Trump hasn’t committed a war crime. What matters is that international law clearly points to the fact that he has. A Lib Dem leader is undermining the rule of law and giving support to an action that was a war crime.

  • Steve Trevethan 8th Apr '17 - 6:07pm

    Are the people of Iraq, Libya and Syria now better or worse off than they were before the USA led “Western” interventions on their real/alleged behalf? (Ditto Ukraine?)

  • David Pocock 8th Apr '17 - 6:34pm

    @angry Steve – I’m not a human rights lawyer what crime has he committed?

  • Ed Shepherd 8th Apr '17 - 8:57pm

    Could be considered a “crime of aggression” under the Rome Statute.

  • Ed Shepherd 8th Apr '17 - 9:01pm

    And from another unexplored angle the US strikes might be a crime under Syrian law. Meaning that any future government of Syria would have to consider prosecuting the US politicians and personnel who killed Syrian citizens. Maybe they would apply to extradite Donald Trump!

  • Sandy Leslie 9th Apr '17 - 12:08am

    I note that Trump is hosting the Chinese President. Could the attack on Syria be in part a warning to China?

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