A Post-Fact Conflict

By C. Uday Bhaskar

The US-led missile attack on Syria on April 14 for the alleged use of chemical weapons (CW) has been described by President Donald Trump as “Mission Accomplished”. Trump thanked allies, France and the UK, for their contribution. However, if the post-strike data is objectively reviewed, the unilateral military action would be more aptly described as “Mission Orchestrated”.It has been reported that, between them, the US, the UK and France launched more than 100 missiles against suspected Syrian CW facilities and that the targets were “flattened” thereby denuding the Bashar-al-Assad regime of this internationally prohibited category of weapons.

It is instructive to note that despite the “surprise” element introduced by Trump before the attack (“could be very soon or not so soon at all”) and the scale of the attack, the loss to life has been almost minimal. The Syrian General Staff confirmed that only three people were injured and that there were no deaths. Furthermore, despite the significant Russian military presence in the region and the credible missile defence systems in place, none appear to have been activated, thereby preventing any kind of direct US-Russia military engagement. Post-attack, there were reports from Paris suggesting that France had used certain discrete channels of communication to reassure Russia that the missile strike had a limited objective, targeting the CWs, and that there was no plan to embark upon any kind of regime change in Syria.

Orchestration appears to be the more visible leitmotif of the attack on Syria. Moscow has alleged that a British NGO, White Helmets, had staged a fake chemical weapon attack in the Syrian town of Douma on April 7 and that this was used as a pretext for the coordinated US-UK-France action. It is believed, in many quarters, that the intervention in Syria is a diversionary tactic by the leaders of these three nations to divert attention from domestic political discord and citizen dissatisfaction and a loyal TV campaign would shape national sentiment accordingly. The script has been followed, by and large. For a brief period, Russian TV warned of an impending third World War and provided a quick tutorial on how to access bomb shelters, in the event of the military escalation that was being hinted at — but not explicitly stated by Moscow.

The immediate global challenge is the trampling of international law and convention. This attack was not authorised by the UN Security Council. This is compounded by the fact that there has been no credible, independent investigation and confirmation about the use of CWs by the Syrian regime against its own people in the April 7 incident. The OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) is currently in Damascus and is expected to pursue the matter but its brief is very narrow and excludes identifying the source and user of the purported CW attack.

Thus what is at play is the battle for the more compelling and persuasive narrative about April 7 and Douma, even while the actual facts have been buried. Mass media has played a major role in the dissemination of the preferred dominant discourse — there is a striking contrast between the Western/English and Russian narratives of the same event.

Syria marks one eruption of an exceedingly uncertain phase in global geopolitics. This includes the US-Russia tension on the one hand and the simmering US-China disputes on the other. It does not help that the president of the US — the world’s oldest and most powerful democracy — is being described by his former intelligence chief as being “unethical and untethered to truth and institutional values”. Global concern will mount, for this is the finger on the US nuclear button.

Syria and the opaque geopolitical contestation of the last few years point to an ontological dilemma of the current times. What is the truth and what is fact ? It appears that the 21st century has uneasily and perhaps unwittingly transmuted from the certitudes of the previous century (Cold War, bi-polarity) into post-fact world disorder. And even more bewildering is the dissolution of institutional integrity, values and normative principles.

The liberal democratic order may be precariously poised on the end of its own brief history. Douma in Syria could well be the unlikely bellwether even as the OPCW report is awaited.

The writer is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi