The contention that people are likely to be better informed if they have access to more news is at first sight self-evident. But one of the ironies of the modern age of mass communication is that being bombarded with information from different sources around the clock can make it harder to know what to believe; particularly in an era of so-called fake news when sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between fabrication and the truth. The growing incidence of official propaganda and disinformation also leads to a lack of trust in the pronouncements of governments which all too often will anyway seek to ‘spin’ the facts in their own favour.
A demonstration of all this is the plethora of conflicting information about the latest crisis in Syria involving accusations of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government, with Russian connivance, against its own people in Douma, a suburb of Damascus.
Despite the initial international condemnation, it seems responsibility for this atrocity, which has resulted in widespread death and destruction, has still not been fully determined, not least because of speculation that the Syrian rebels may have secured limited access to chemical weapons acquired through ISIS. British Prime Minister Theresa May has described it as a barbaric act and said initially that before joining with the US and France in any bombing campaign in Syria – a military action that might anyway require parliamentary approval - Britain would need more evidence of Assad’s culpability. Most recently, however, she has said the indications are the Syrian regime was responsible and must be held to account.
The use of chemical weapons in warfare is regarded as particularly repugnant and has long been banned under international law. President Trump has declared Western nations must respond on humanitarian grounds to the suffering inflicted on civilians including children through retaliatory punitive action against the perpetrators. But the full facts may never be verified because Russia, while denying its own complicity, has vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution to create an expert body to determine responsibility.
Nevertheless, in order to preserve the existing rules-based international order there is a general acceptance that those who flout international law should not be allowed to escape without some form of sanction so that, if the allegations against Assad are confirmed, action by the West is vital because the use of chemical weapons cannot go unchallenged.
On the last occasion, a year ago, that Syria was condemned for its use of chemical weapons, the US responded with limited missile strikes on military airfields. This time, Mr Trump has reacted even more forcefully. But many observers disapprove of his hot-headed and ill-advised tweets in tough and emotive language accusing Russia of involvement and threatening retaliatory airstrikes. Russia’s support of the Assad regime, which it sees as a lawful government fighting against international terrorism, means it retains its own forces and other assets within Syria and the Kremlin has vowed to shoot down US missiles and target the sites launching them.
Mr Trump’s peremptory language instead of a carefully worded statement arising from proper consideration of the issue with his advisers is truly terrifying for the rest of the world. His actions are causing serious concern to the extent the international press is carrying headlines like ‘the world is on the brink of war’ – and the fear is that, with Iran and, to a lesser extent, Turkey also involved, there is the danger in such a charged atmosphere of miscalculation by either side which could lead to disaster. Some have found it encouraging that during the last two days he seems to have softened his stance and it now seems negotiations are going ahead while tensions continue. Nonetheless, airstrikes against Syrian military targets now seem inevitable.
While the media is obsessed with Syria, a significant development in world politics that has received less publicity is the re-election of the populist right-wing prime minister of Hungary for a third term. Viktor Orban is renowned for challenging the European Union’s agenda especially its policy on compulsory refugee quotas for all member states, but he is also against further political integration and wants to reform the EU from within.
As he seeks to rally other European countries like Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic in support of his goal, ‘euroscepticism’ is on the rise also in Italy and the Netherlands as well as Germany itself with the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) now the third largest party. Thus, with Britain already on course to leave the EU at the end of March next year, the future of the bloc is beginning to look increasingly uncertain.
Yet again, while we enjoy the peace and security of our lives this side of the Atlantic, we can only watch with a mix of awe, horror and trepidation the terrible events in the Middle East including the real threat they could precipitate a wider conflagration that will affect us all. We can only hope that, as the US President mulls over the options presented to him by his officials and consults with his British and French allies, wise heads will prevail and that conflict on a wider scale can be avoided.