Donald Trump could not have been clearer. Bashar al-Assad’s crimes, including the gassing to death of “mothers and fathers, infants and children” were “not the actions of a man. They are the crimes of a monster.” Assad was, he added, the leader of a “rogue state” and “a brutal tyrant, a murderous dictator”. Earlier the US president had called the Syrian leader “an animal”.
The rhetoric was off the scale. The action, in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons on civilians cowering in basements, was not. Apparently, Trump had to be reined back by his military chiefs from much more drastic measures, and the US defence secretary, James Mattis, later played down the cruise missile attacks on Syria’s chemical weapons facilities as “a one-time shot”.
I wonder what the commander-in-chief had been considering (insofar as “considering” is something he does). It would have been easily within the capabilities of the Americans to land ordnance on Assad’s palace on Mount Mezzeh, overlooking Damascus. The main building covers 340,000 sq ft, so it’s hardly a small target. Now that would send a message. And if the Syrian dictator — guilty of “mass murder”, according to Trump — had been inside at the time, well, bingo.
It would hardly be unprecedented for the Americans to act in such a way — and it would be far more popular domestically than any large military operations that put the lives of US servicemen and women at risk
It’s now almost forgotten, but on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, George W Bush authorised what the Pentagon described as a “decapitation” attempt — their word for a plan to assassinate Saddam Hussein and his sons. But the ghastly trio had just left the “leadership bunker” when the Americans struck. With this “surgical” approach having failed, full-scale invasion by American and British forces went ahead — with all the consequences that now bedevil the region.
This was the first known such attempt since 1986, when Ronald Reagan authorised a strike against the Libyan leader, Colonel Gadaffi (using 18 warplanes that set off from RAF Lakenheath). It was revenge, inter alia, for what was believed to be Gadaffi’s responsibility for the terrorist bombing of a West Berlin discotheque frequented by US soldiers. Unfortunately — from the point of view of the mission — one of Gadaffi’s daughters was purportedly killed by the American bombs but the target escaped. The Libyan leader’s own revenge in this cycle of retribution took place in the skies over the Scottish town of Lockerbie two years later.
Morality and international law aside, this is the trouble with such attempts at striking “the head of the snake”. If the snake is merely scotched rather than killed (as Shakespeare had Macbeth put it), then conflict is escalated, not ended. It must also occur to any US president that to commission a direct attack on the life of a fellow head of state is to invite the most intimately reciprocal form of retaliation.
It is not as though America eschews “targeted killings” of lesser folk. Barack Obama was an assiduous commissioner of drone strikes against individuals deemed to be America’s enemies — regarding such technologically enabled “hits” as a marvel in the development of warfare. Trump has continued with the policy. The lawyers are adamant these are not “assassinations” but self-defence — and thus don’t breach an executive order signed by Reagan (and still in force) declaring that “no person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination”.
It was probably because of this that, during the first Gulf War, General Michael Dugan was sacked as US Air Force chief of staff after he suggested that America was trying to kill Saddam Hussein. I felt a bit sorry for the general: he was only pointing out there was an obvious reason behind the bombing of Saddam’s palaces (they were where the Iraqi dictator was thought to be).
Assad himself has hardly abjured direct strikes on individuals from western countries. Specifically — and this will be appreciated by any Sunday Times reader — a court was told last week that the paper’s intrepid foreign correspondent Marie Colvin had been “killed in a targeted assassination by the Syrian regime” in 2012. The 56-year-old was reporting from Syria when she (and a 28-year-old French photojournalist named Rémi Ochlik) was cut down by a government hit on a media centre. A lawsuit by her family alleges the officers behind the attack on Colvin were rewarded and promoted. Assad’s only comment (in his somewhat fractured English) was: “She came illegally to Syria. She worked with the terrorists and because she came illegally, she’s been responsible of everything that befall on her.”
Still, even this fellow Sunday Times writer will refrain from advocating a direct attack on the tyrant who has used chemical weapons on his own people. Thanks to North Korea and Russia, the international scene is becoming increasingly like a mafia movie. Despite the evident appeal of whacking the bad guy, it’s not a style we should emulate.
Whatever the limitations of the actions taken on Friday night, they can reasonably be described by the British prime minister, Theresa May, as a legitimate and proportionate response to Assad’s (repeated) breach of the international treaties against the use of chemical weapons. Indeed, the Assad regime’s insistence that it hasn’t deployed them — and the Russians’ too — demonstrates its awareness of that legal position.
But the real reason — unlike in the case of Saddam and Gadaffi — the Americans will not take direct aim at Mr Big is that they are on the same side. The Americans (and to a much lesser extent the British and French) have been busily pounding the forces that have been waging civil war against Assad: a range of Islamist militias of the most brutal sort. Indeed, in the week before Assad’s gas attack on Douma, Trump had declared his intention to withdraw from the Syrian conflict: the forces loyal to Isis seemed to have been defeated.
The unmentionable truth is that the effect of the latest chlorine barrel bomb, aside from murdering innocent children and their parents, was to persuade the Islamist rebels to abandon their last bastion on the outskirts of Damascus. They exited in tour buses laid on by the regime. To put it bluntly, Assad’s atrocity brings closer what the West actually wants: the speediest possible end to a civil war that has displaced millions.
This, presumably, is what Trump’s military advisers will have told him. So yesterday morning Assad turned up for work as normal.
The Sunday Times