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Road to Damascus

Published Apr 12, 2017 06:00am


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REX Tillerson’s conversations in Moscow today will be extremely interesting, to put it mildly. The US secretary of state, the recipient five years ago of an Order of Friendship from Vladimir Putin, is unlikely to come across many friendly faces in the Russian capital.

What some people saw as the solitary potential upside of a Trump presidency, namely the likelihood of less fraught relations between Washington and Moscow, was upended in the wake of last week’s US missile strike on a Syrian airbase, theoretically in retaliation for a bombing raid by the regime of Bashar al-Assad in which the chemical weapon sarin was deployed.

Neither Syria nor Russia has denied that a chemical weapon was indeed the culprit in the upwards of 80 horrendous deaths at Khan Sheikhun in Idlib province, but both claim it was the consequence of bombs falling on rebel stockpiles of the deadly substance. That’s unlikely, although not implausible.

The alternative explanation would be the deliberate use of sarin by the Syrian air force, and at least some of the scepticism about that particular scenario derives not from the profound cruelty of the act — the Syrian regime’s capacity for brutality is well established — but from its extreme stupidity.

Is it acceptable to slay civilians, including ‘beautiful children’?

After all, Syria was supposed to have surrendered all its stockpiles of chemical weapons following a Russian-brokered agreement almost four years ago. Ever since, Barack Obama has been regularly excoriated by some for not retaliating when the Syrian government crossed a ‘red line’ he had rhetorically instituted through the ostensible use of chemical weapons on a rebel-held area on the outskirts of Damascus.

One of the reasons the Obama administration was so keen to go along with the alternative proposed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, though, was that an implacably hostile US Congress would almost certainly have rejected any proposal for military action in Syria, just as the British parliament had done.

Back then, Donald Trump’s tweets were imploring the president to stay out of Syria. What’s more, until a couple of weeks ago representatives of the Trump administration were implying that Assad wasn’t the primary problem, and that all efforts must be focused on defeating the militant Islamic State group and other jihadists.

The Tomahawking of the Syrian air force indirectly rewards those very forces, just as the US-Saudi actions in Yemen tend to do. It’s hardly any surprise that Riyadh and Tel Aviv are again on precisely the same page in hailing Trump’s initiative, perhaps even more vociferously than liberal and conservative hawks in the West. It’s as if precipitate military action is all it takes for a widely scorned White House incumbent to suddenly appear presidential.

Trump’s Pauline conversion on the (at least metaphorical) road to Damascus was apparently prompted by the ubiquitous images of “beautiful children” struggling to survive the chemical overload. The images are indeed heartrending, even in a world accustomed to such atrocities. As several commentators have pointed out, though, isn’t Trump at the same time striving to exclude equally beautiful children from entry into his nation?

Besides, is it acceptable to slay civilians, inevitably including beautiful children, with barrel bombs and other weaponry that excludes chemical weapons? And who can say precisely how many beautiful children have perished in the Middle East in the past couple of decades as a consequence of US actions or those of its allies? Remember how Bill Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine Albright said that the deaths of an estimated half a million children in Iraq were an acceptable price to pay for sanctions against Iraq?

It was 50 years ago this month that Martin Luther King Jr definitively broke his silence on Vietnam by eloquently condemning his nation’s government as the worst perpetrator of violence in the world. Not enough has changed in the interim.

It cannot be denied that US action in Syria helped to detract attention from Trumps multiple domestic dilemmas. That too is a fairly typical American pattern.

The sharply deteriorated ties with Russia ought to be a key concern, though. Not to mention the Trump summit with China’s president Xi Jinping at the US president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, which was overshadowed by the military action.

Far from the Middle East, meanwhile, there’s the question of North Korea, in which context the cliché of ‘all options are on the table’ has lately been echoing, amid assertions that the US is willing to go it alone, as if the most powerful nation in the world — which has lately given notice of its intent to sharply increase its military budget — needs assistance in operating a fly-swatter.

The assumption that Trump would be a relatively isolationist president has been comprehensively thwarted. Unfortunately, the suspicion that he is stupidly susceptible to dodgy advice from a range of dubious —in some cases deranged — advisers remains intact.

Published in Dawn, April 12th, 2017


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (13) Closed

Sadpaw Apr 12, 2017 07:36am

The situation in Syria is beyond belief.Don't these world leaders have children,beautiful or otherwise.

Ismail khan20 Apr 12, 2017 08:45am

Syria makes me so confessed, I just wish no human die there anymore

Shahid Ahmed Apr 12, 2017 11:22am

This is tussel between two powers i.e, Russia and US. Whereas, burden is falling on Syrians and being crushed on daily basis.

Random Apr 12, 2017 12:44pm

All of Middle-East is in conflagration, 4,00,000 killed in Syria. How many killed in Iraq and how many in Yemen? Where all the flowers gone; oh when will they ever learn?

R.Kannan Apr 12, 2017 02:37pm

The situation in Syria is a terrible tragedy for the humans living there. Both sides are evil and it is impossible to decide which is the lesser evil.

shah Apr 12, 2017 03:11pm

Muslims are killing other Muslims in Syria. This war can be stopped by Saudis/turkish/Iranian govertments. Outside forces are involved because Muslim countries invited them.

merit Apr 12, 2017 04:10pm

Syria is case of mass murder by international community.

Iftikhar Husain Apr 12, 2017 04:47pm

The planning of the West and KSA was coming to fail in changing regime change in Syria due to the Russian intervention they are trying to finish the job this way. All all troubles in the world has gone in the back all focus is to finish this job quickly. This win for the west will ensure the last trouble for Israel is eliminated only trouble left is Iran that can wait for later time.

the wrong side... Apr 12, 2017 06:50pm

I think it is Basher Al Assad who has "deranged advisors"...the Russians are accomplices in the deaths of over 400,000 Syrians and they have caused the displacement of over a million Syrians causing the refugee crisis in Europe...and the Russians justify this behavior just to keep their navy base in Syria?..shame on them

Riaz Ahmad Apr 12, 2017 08:07pm

Demands of hegemony and control of other nations resources knows no bounds, rules or red lines, including slaughter and maiming of beautiful children, this is the reality of this barbaric so called civilised human race, the supreme of all creations; this is the way it has behaved through out all known history.

Cassandra Apr 12, 2017 08:10pm

Of course it is OK to kill women and sweet and not so sweet children. A simple review of our human past will tell you that simple truth. Everyone does it, some of us are not proud of it, but when it is happening none of us do anything about it (there are few exceptions to this in the last few thousand years). Pakistani's did it in East Pakistan. Indians do it in Tiripura and of course Kashmir. Americans do it all over, they have a global reach in this human activity. From Philipines to Vietnam, from Chile to Iraq, they are good at it. Russians do it often enough to make it part of their culture. The very very civilized Germans did it so well that they set standard for efficiency. The French tried their hand at it in Algeria and Vietnam. The British, I so love the British, they do it so well no one notices or at leasts mentions it.

Who is left... , actually no one.

DR.zaid ahmad al-muhaisen Apr 13, 2017 07:40am

Syrian territory has become a major theater for a group of international players who practice their policies and dirty weapons against the will of the Syrian people and for benefit of Israel

MOHAMMAD IQBAL Apr 13, 2017 08:00pm

@Sadpaw . You all forgot. Afghan children and Syrian children are more beautiful than European breed, colour wise and health wise. Nobody shouted when thousands of Afghan children perished in US adventures