We should not be proud of of the insufficient response against the Damascus regime, but total inaction would be even worse.
PARIS — When it comes to interventions, military as well as humanitarian, things work in cycles. The massacres in the African Great Lakes region in 1994 played a decisive role in the U.S. decision to intervene in Kosovo five years later. You could perhaps even factor in the 1994 release of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. I still remember a conversation I had at the time in Washington, a few days before the intervention took place, with a senior American official. "We don't like people being forcibly put on trains in Europe over here," he told me. "It brings back bad memories."
Such concepts of the "responsibility to protect" and the "duty to intervene" have been fueled by a sense of guilt in the face of the massacres that took place without reactions on our part. In the inverse, we can say that the people of Syria have been paying a tragic price for the past seven years for the unfortunate Western intervention in Iraq in 2003. Because there were no (or no longer) weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, because the humanitarian and strategic consequences of the intervention were catastrophic, the civilian populations of Syria found themselves alone or almost alone in the face of the disproportionate and illegal use of force.
Back in September 2013, it was the two countries involved 10 years earlier in the war in Iraq that retreated at the last moment, even though a red line had just been crossed in a spectacular way.
The strikes against Syria on Friday night didn't change this state of affairs. They actually confirmed it.
Barack Obama, in particular, didn't want to take the risk of engaging America in a new war, he who had been elected on a program of domestic reforms, and of caution and moderation abroad. The turning point in 2013 was perfectly understood by our opponents in Syria. Bashar al-Assad's regime was saved, and its supporters, Russia and Iran, have won by default.
The strikes against Syria on Friday night didn't change this state of affairs. They actually confirmed it. One would almost be tempted to say that we pretended to strike and our opponents pretended to protest. But could it be otherwise? Intervening too late, we could only do too little. Restoring a real taboo on the use of chemical weapons at this stage was a risk we were not prepared to take. And for what result? Haven't the dice been cast already?
The Damascus regime has won, ISIS has been defeated in Syria and Iraq, and Moscow and Tehran have consolidated their influence. The State of Israel has only one obsession, to prevent Iran's rise to power. It doesn't matter that the Syrian people feel abandoned to their fate and betrayed by the international community, which no longer has — as it did during World War II — the privilege of ignorance. Syria is just over four hours away from Paris by plane, and yet you can (almost) get away with gassing people whose only crime is to be in the wrong place (their own country) at the wrong time.
Having done so little, after repeated use of chemical weapons by a cruel and cynical regime, is nothing to be proud of. But to have done nothing would have been much worse. The cost of inaction and indifference — hiding behind small political calculations, or dangerous and false strategic visions — was simply unacceptable.
And yet, hesitating between cowardly relief and legitimate pride in the professionalism and courage of our soldiers, we are tempted to say it's all "much ado about nothing."
Everything is happening as if Brexit was not about to take place.
After air strikes that will not go down in history, we need to learn several lessons. The first is that the American decision-making process has become terrifying. Over the span of less than a week, the President of the world's leading military power has gone through all the shades of confusion: "I'm withdrawing my troops... I'm sending my missiles, which are so beautiful and so smart... I'm giving myself time to think... you didn't understand what I meant."
The second lesson is that in the face of the Syrian situation, as was the case a few years ago during the Libyan crisis, Europe, and more precisely, the "Franco-German couple" was the great absentee. In 2018, as far as security and defense are concerned, everything is happening as if Brexit was not about to take place. The bilateral relationship between Paris and London is still closer than that between Paris and Berlin. Germany can verbally support the action of the Western coalition, it wouldn't cross their minds to join it. There are still only two countries in Europe that consider themselves "powers' in the classical sense: France and Great Britain. One is in the European Union, the other is about to leave it.
Finally, it simply doesn't make sense to denounce France's blind conformity with the United States' position. In 2018, it is Paris that seems to set the tone in terms of determination, coherence, and rationality. Just as it was the case in 2013 after the Damascus regime crossed the red line for the first time.
France intervened (modestly) in Syria, not to court America, but to draw limits on a regime and its allies. And it did this while being perfectly aware of the gap that might exist between the goals being pursued and the means being used. We should not be proud of what we have done, but we would have reasons to be ashamed of our passivity had we chosen inaction.
Still, when it comes to finding a political solution, the lines of power are not changing. There's no circumventing the regime in place — despite its crimes. Its Iranian and Russian allies have strengthened their presence and influence in the region. And Turkey is looking at the situation developing at its border with a mixture of appetite and apprehension.