There has been a staggering rise in the number of civilian victims of US bombings in Iraq and Syria in the last month.
It started with a strike on a mosque in the rebel-held town of al-Jinnah in Syria, where 42 people were killed while praying. As activists and media monitors posted videos and pictures of body parts strewn through the rubble, a US army spokesperson defended the attack as a successful example of a “precision strike”.
Also making headlines was the callous bombing of a school sheltering dozens of families on the outskirts of Raqqa, the infamous stronghold of ISIS. In a bitter irony, many of the 33 who died were from families that had fled other areas of the country to avoid the violence of the civil war. They had survived years of armed conflict, of indiscriminate Russian and regime bombing campaigns, and ISIS. All for nothing.
To top off the carnage, at least 200 people were killed in a raid on Mosul on 21 March. A Washington Post article suggested the attack “could potentially rank among one of the most devastating attacks on civilians by American forces in more than two decades”, a remarkable accomplishment for all the wrong reasons.
What makes this massacre particularly galling is that the US-led coalition has repeatedly told civilians not to flee Mosul because they would be safer in their houses. They learnt, in the hardest way possible, that this was a lie. One woman described the experience of being bombed not once, but twice, in an interview with Amnesty International:
“We were sleeping when the house literally collapsed on us. It was a miracle none of us was killed. We ran to my uncle’s house nearby. At about 2pm that house too was bombed and collapsed on us … almost everyone in the house was killed – 11 people. My cousin, two aunts and I were the only ones who survived. Everyone else died. It took us six days to find only pieces of their bodies.”
It is hard to imagine the suffering such events have inflicted on the people of Iraq. What turns sadness into rage is that our government, along with the US, is responsible. The 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq – motivated by imperial rivalries and naked corporate ambition – remain the root cause of so much destruction in the region.
In the midst of this horror, the New York Times found a way to defend the US war machine, publishing an atrocious article by Tim Arango that deflected blame for the massacres onto “Islamic State fighters who do not care if [civilians] live or die”. Undoubtedly this is true, but it is not ISIS that is raining death and destruction from the skies.
This horrific onslaught reflects Trump’s desire to place the US military on a more aggressive footing than it was during the Obama administration.
The non-profit organisation Airwars.com estimates that coalition air strikes in Syria and Iraq killed upwards of 1,000 people in March. It is impossible to know for sure, as there have been so many strikes with such high casualties that Airwars.com has been unable to document them all.
During the presidential campaign, Trump threatened to legalise torture and allow the murder of terror suspects’ family members. Early in March, senior figures in his administration said they were seeking to loosen restrictions on counter-terrorism operations and air strikes.
Whether changes have been made to the regulations governing US military engagement in Iraq is unclear, but the blood on the streets is there for all to see. Trump has also sent hundreds more ground troops into Iraq and Syria, aiming to expedite the defeat of ISIS.
Part of this shift is an expression of the machismo common to US administrations, which tend to ramp up patriotism and militarism as a distraction when they are planning a particularly regressive domestic agenda.
More significantly, it reflects a profound frustration among a section of the military at the relative passivity of the Obama years. By increasing the military budget and allowing the armed forces to kill at will, Trump is hoping to reinvigorate the US empire and purchase the loyalty of key US generals. It is yet to be seen whether this policy can stabilise the US position in the Middle East, but we can be certain that thousands of lives will be lost in the attempt.
There are important continuities between Trump’s recent actions and those of the previous administration.
To begin with, the overall context is the same; one in which the “War on Terror” has given Western governments carte blanche to kill and maim Arabs and Muslims.
Obama pioneered the widespread use of drone warfare, approving far more strikes than his predecessors. His unprecedented use of modern surveillance technology and aerial assassinations abolished the most basic premises of natural justice – such as the right to privacy and a fair trial – and legitimised the use of extrajudicial murder as a tool of US foreign policy.
In January, there was widespread coverage of the “botched” assault in Yemen by US special forces, which resulted in the murder of 16 civilians. The attack was described as a failure not because innocent people died, but because a US soldier was killed in the fighting and no usable intelligence was gathered.
But it was Obama, not Trump, who first aided the massive Saudi assault on Yemen, which has devastated the country and resulted in at least 10,000 deaths in the last two years. Without US naval and logistical support, including a whopping $20 billion in arms sales in the first year of the conflict, the war would not have been possible.
In Syria, the differences are superficially clearer. Trump has long been open about his sympathy for Putin and the Assad regime and more sceptical of the rebels.
In practice, though, the orientation of US policy has remained the same.
For years, Obama refused to allow rebels to access anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry, leaving them helpless in the face of indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas by Assad and the Russians. Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, established the US position on the Syrian revolution, which, though it shifted in its specifics, consistently opposed the defeat of the Ba’ath regime.
The increased presence of ground forces in Syria and Iraq is merely an expansion of the Obama-era approach, which embedded US special forces with Kurdish militias in northern Syria. Under Obama, these US forces were almost never involved in combat against the regime, let alone the Russians, but instead focused their fire on ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Syrian rebel groups.
Rebuilding an anti-war left
Millions of people have been inspired to take action in the face of Trump’s escalation of racism, militarism and general inhumanity.
Channelling this anger in fruitful directions is a crucial task for the left in the US and around the world. We need to rebuild an anti-war and anti-racist movement that can challenge the lies of Trump and his ilk, such as Pauline Hanson and Peter Dutton here in Australia.
We cannot forget, though, that the policies of the previous administration were crucial in paving the way for the current onslaught. Trump’s bumbling callousness will entrench and revive illusions in Obama and the Democrats – the liberal media have even cast the war criminal George W. Bush as a sensible moderate.
But victims of US air strikes cannot tell the difference between Democratic and Republican bombs, nor the colour of the skin of the man responsible for the death of their families.