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The US missile strike in Syria should alarm us all


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Yesterday, I began writing a piece warning against hasty overreactions to the chemical attack in Idlib, Syria. Today, I find that I need not bother completing it.

I could say that I saw this coming. The debate over Syria has, since the attack, taken on a sinister and familiar tone. Questions, posed by everyone from the media commentariat to public audiences, have ceased to be equivocal; no longer is it ‘what should we do’; last night, on Question Time, the panellists were asked ‘what action should we take?’ Moreover, what action should we take against Assad? We have entered the territory of folly. ‘Something must be done. This is something, therefore this must be done.’ Too many minds are made up, and too soon.  

The United States has launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase in al-Shayrat. This follows comments made by President Trump in recent days; he has said that the chemical attack had ‘changed’ his view of Assad and his regime.

Which it would and should, if it were proven that Assad and his regime were responsible for the attack. But it has not been proven. To say that the Assad regime is 'probably' responsible for the chemical attack in Idlib, a line taken by our own ambassador to the UN as recently as yesterday, is not the same thing as saying that the Assad regime is 'actually' responsible for the attack. Probability is not evidence, and the evidence is either lacking or denied to us.

We have to hope that the US possesses indisputable proof that it has not shared either with the public or (it would seem) the UK government. Yet if it possessed such proof, why would it have demanded, at the UN, that the Assad regime provides flight logs for its military aircraft? Why would it have demanded that inspectors be allowed access to Syrian airfields?

I think we can all agree that the response of both the Russian and Syrian regimes, which was to refuse these demands, was wrong and suspicious. But, again, why would the Trump administration seek to acquire information it already has?

And if it does not possess indisputable proof, then it has launched a direct military attack on a country against which it has never, to my knowledge, formally declared war, and it has done so based on nothing more than an educated guess.

We now await the Russian response. Boris Johnson will meet Vladmir Putin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, on Monday; US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will meet his counterpart on Wednesday. Russia supports Assad, lending him planes and pilots and an undisclosed number of personnel on the ground. We must hope that none were present at the base targeted by US missiles.

And, regardless, we must hope that the Russian response is more measured and rational than that of the US. This is not a position in which we should be comfortable.

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