George Orwell, in his famous essay “Shooting an Elephant,” recalls his years spent in Burma, where, as an official of the colonial government, he shot to death a roaming male elephant, even though it posed no threat to its surroundings. So why did he shoot it? Because it was the thing to do. Local residents expected every functionary of the colonial superpower to shoot an elephant. There is a similar situation in Damascus today. The West will carry out a military strike against Damascus simply because it is expected — it has little more reason to do so than that.
So now, for some real reasons. Enough arguments in favor of intervention, better or more poorly formulated, can certainly be found. But before the tomahawks actually begin to fly over the Mediterranean — the Americans evidently do not dare deploy fighter jets — functionaries of the colonial government — sorry, high-ranking politicians of the allied forces — should discuss them very carefully. In time, most arguments could come back to them like boomerangs. A few examples follow of how opponents of war might put them into proper proportions.
- Argument for attack: We had to intervene because the Syrian regime is brutally killing the civilian population. Proper proportions: The Syrian regime has killed 100,000 people since 2011 and driven 2 million of them, a million of them children, beyond the borders and 6 million from their homes. Summary: If we had to act, then we should have done so a year or two ago.
- Argument for attack: The Syrian regime is murdering women and children with chemical weapons. Proper proportions: It is not at all clear whether the deployment of chemical agents was actually ordered by the “regime,” or whether it was done at the initiative of a zealous officer. It could be a matter of an internal party struggle, which the West will blindly help one faction to win.
- Argument for attack: The West cannot stand by while a country’s army gases hundreds of people. Proper proportions: The West has already stood by repeatedly while such things were done. During the Iran-Iraq War, Washington even gave Saddam strategic information that helped him to gas Iranians more effectively. Summary: The allies are not really concerned about whether and how some regime kills people. The possession of chemical weapons must nevertheless remain taboo for the rest of the world.
- Argument for attack: A surgical strike with several missiles will not cost anything and will send the dictator Assad a clear message that no crime will go unrequited. Proper proportions: A punitive assault, without a clear plan on how to proceed further, will only cause forces to regroup and provoke a cornered regime to commit even worse stunts. Summary: The allies will shoot timber into a pile in the hope that, without their assistance, they will come together into a nicely formed column on their own.
- Argument for attack: The fall of the Assad regime is in the interest of the U.S. and its allies. Proper proportions: The West has hardly any other interest in Syria except that Israel come to no harm. Summary: In reality, an escalation of the civil war threatens this one genuine interest even more.
Coming to the conclusion that a swift military strike against Damascus may be counterproductive still does not mean that the "Allies" should not intervene in Syria at all. However, this gives rise to the question: Why intervene just now? Tactics are not enough for a successful intervention — it also requires a clear strategy on how to proceed after the overthrow of the regime. A deficit of this nature has already ruined every single intervention, beginning with Kosovo and ending with Iraq (or Libya?).
Finally, even a minimum-scale humanitarian operation means a much more demanding operation than launching a few “punitive tomahawks” from the safety of the Mediterranean. “The worst thing we can do is nothing” — as we have heard from the White House in recent days — is not necessarily true. The worst thing would be spectacular actions that divert attention from the fact that we are not doing much at all otherwise.
In other words, we take a shot at an elephant and walk away.