SocialistWorker.org contributor Ashley Smith analyses the conflicting motives behind the Trump administration’s attack against Syrian targets – and what it means for the worldwide balance of war and terror.
After a weeklong Twitter storm of threats from Donald Trump, the US government, in alliance with Britain and France, launched air strikes against Syria late on 13 April.
This mainly symbolic display of military might will intensify geopolitical conflicts in the region and internationally, bringing the world closer to a wider war – and it sets the stage for Trump and his war cabinet to ramp up hostilities with Iran and North Korea in the weeks and months to come.
The US-led attack reportedly targeted three sites in Damascus and Homs where the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is accused of developing, manufacturing and storing chemical weapons.
This was in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against rebel forces and the civilian population in the town of Douma in Eastern Ghouta. In an act of state terrorism, the regime killed over 70 and injured close to 1,000, mainly women and children. The poison gas attack succeeded in compelling the withdrawal of the Islamic fundamentalist militia Jaish al-Islam within days.
British prime minister Theresa May justified the attack as a “humanitarian intervention” designed to save Syrian lives. In reality, the US, Britain and France don’t care about Syrian civilians. They have stood by while Assad laid waste to the country and massacred Syrians with “conventional” weapons.
For a second time, Trump has launched a military strike on Syria over the regime’s use of chlorine or sarin gas. He wants to deter the regime from using such weapons again, as well as demonstrate US military power. Any pretence of humanitarian concern from May or Trump is rank hypocrisy, rivalled only by the propaganda churned out by Assad, Russia and Iran in defence of their ongoing war of terror on the Syrian people.
Hypocrisy and bombast
The US, in particular, is in no position to claim the moral high ground. Just in the recent past and present, the US war and occupation of Iraq led to the deaths of well over a million people. Some of those in Fallujah were victims of American chemical weapons: white phosphorus bombs.
Washington is currently backing Saudi Arabia’s campaign of mass slaughter in Yemen and Israel’s terror against nonviolent Palestinian protesters.
In Syria itself, the US has proved its callous disregard for people’s lives. Although strangely ignored by many in the anti-war movement, the US has been at war in Syria since 2014, but not against the regime, the main culprit for the carnage and destruction in the country. Instead, the US has aimed its missiles and bombs at the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), operating in a de facto alliance with the Assad regime.
Toppling Assad is not a US war aim. May made this abundantly clear when she announced that the bombing campaign did not have the goal of “regime change” – something confirmed by Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White, who stated the strikes did not represent “an attempt to depose the Syrian regime”.
Trump and his British and French accomplices have done nothing to help the Syrian people rising up against Assad.
Even worse, Trump has demonised the refugees from violence and repression in Syria, using the worst Islamophobic and racist terms. During his presidential campaign, Trump denounced Syrian refugees as a terrorist “Trojan horse”, and as president, he has taken numerous measures to try to bar their entry.
The number of Syrian refugees allowed into the US has slowed to a trickle: only 11 so far this year.
Truth be told, Trump’s air strike was morally bankrupt political theatre. Repeating the erroneous boast that George W. Bush made at the beginning of the Iraq War, Trump declared “Mission accomplished”. The Pentagon claimed it struck at “the heart” of the regime’s capacity to produce chemical weapons.
All of this is bombast. The attack, like the one last year, was limited and will have little to no effect on the regime’s prosecution of the civil war – and even its use of chemical weapons.
Trump delayed the attack for days, giving the Assad regime plenty of time to move war materials into population centres and Russia military bases, both of which the US was unlikely to attack. The targeted facilities were reportedly evacuated days before the attack.
Chemical weapons are only one part of the arsenal of weapons wielded by Assad and his allies. The vast majority of Syrian lives have been lost to conventional weapons and forces.
Trump and his allies scrupulously avoided targeting those in their air strikes out of fear of triggering a wider conflict, especially with Russia.
If anything, the regime and its backers are today more confident to prosecute their genocidal war to re-impose the dictatorship’s rule through the rest of Syria. Indeed, refugees from Douma are worried that they will again face the regime’s terror in Idlib.
Meanwhile, defense secretary James Mattis made it clear that the missile strike was a “one-time shot”, and no more attacks were planned. That would be in keeping with Trump’s announcement, just before the US strike, that he wanted to withdraw American troops after the final defeat of ISIS.
The latest lashing out of the US military commanded by Trump reflects the contradictions that Washington faces in the world overall and in the Middle East in particular.
The US emerged from the collapse of the USSR that ended the Cold War in the early 1990s as an unrivalled colossus, overseeing an informal empire of states that accepted its terms of neoliberal globalisation.
But a succession of crises has led to its relative decline as an imperial power and the rise of both international and regional competitors.
Following the September 11 attacks in the US, the invasion and occupation of Iraq under George W. Bush was designed to lock in US dominance over the Middle East and its strategic energy reserves. Instead, it turned into US imperialism’s biggest setback since Vietnam, weakening Washington’s hand in the region and emboldening regional antagonists, especially Iran.
Meanwhile, on the basis of its growing economic strength, China has become more and more assertive of its own imperial ambitions – and Russia has rebuilt itself under Vladimir Putin as a nuclear-armed power buttressed by an economy based on oil, natural gas and the arms trade.
The US remains the dominant world superpower, but it faces challenges from an international rival in China, a resurgent Russia, a host of regional powers like Iran and antagonists like North Korea.
All of these contradictions have come to a head in the Middle East.
The Bush regime had intended to follow a triumphant invasion of Iraq with regime change in Iran and Syria, but the mass resistance to colonial occupation in Iraq crushed those fantasies.
The main beneficiary of the US setback in Iraq was Iran, which gained influence as the sponsor of the Shia political forces that dominated the new government. Under Barack Obama, the US extracted huge concessions – but Iran was able to achieve an international accord that ended its economic and political isolation in return for agreeing to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
If the policy of regime stabilisation seemed to prosper for a time under Obama, the people of the region upset the entire state system when they rose up in 2011’s Arab Spring in a struggle for democracy and equality.
US-backed dictators were overthrown in Egypt and Tunisia after reigning for decades, while pro-US regimes like Bahrain were threatened, and American “frenemies” in Libya and Syria faced popular uprisings.
US imperialism did its best to respond to this threat from below. It stood by the existing order in Bahrain, where it backed neighbouring Saudi Arabia’s brutal suppression of the uprising.
Elsewhere, it tried to co-opt the movement. In Egypt, Washington abandoned its old friend Hosni Mubarak, while trying to preserve the core of the old state. The US likewise attempted to co-opt a popular rebellion against Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, but that ended in a disaster for the US, and the Obama administration quickly returned to a policy of regime preservation.
At the same time as the US backed Saudi Arabia’s savage war against Iranian-backed opponents in Yemen – one of the largest unrecognised humanitarian catastrophes in the world today – the Obama administration made its deal with Iran over its nuclear program.
This was supposed to stabilise the region by balancing between the various antagonists so the US could turn its eyes to containing China through the “Pivot to Asia”.
But the strategy failed on both fronts. The US never managed to make the “pivot” – because the relative decline of American power left Washington unable to contain the growing aggressions of various powers in the Middle East, especially Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
All of this shaped the revolution, counter-revolution and civil war in Syria.
Like elsewhere in the Middle East in 2011, impoverished Syrians rose up against the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. The initial stages looked very much like the mass uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
But the Assad regime remained capable of mobilising the utmost brutality, indiscriminately gunning down nonviolent protests; arresting, torturing and killing activists in the vast prison system; destroying whole areas with barrel bombs; and terrorising the population.
Meanwhile, Assad did what other leaders of the counter-revolution against the Arab Spring did: he played the sectarian card. Assad falsely postured as a defender of the country’s religious minorities – including the country’s oppressed Kurdish population – to try to divide the revolt along ethnic and sectarian lines.
As the pro-democracy uprising was forced to militarise in the face of Assad’s murderous assault, regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Turkey backed Islamic fundamentalist forces within Syria, exacerbating the sectarian divisions.
The US played an absolutely cynical role in this process. It provided limited support to the rebels of the Free Syrian Army, but as left wing author Gilbert Achcar documents in his book Morbid Symptoms, the US denied progressive forces the anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons that could have countered Assad’s unrelenting air war.
At first, the US hoped to use the rebels as pawns in a plan for an orderly transition that would replace Assad, but preserve the core of his oppressive state, with some representation for moderate opposition forces.
But Washington quickly abandoned that limited support once ISIS rose in Iraq and Syria. From 2014 on, the US waged a war in both countries against this reactionary Islamist force that threatened the stability of the whole Middle East. The cost of this war on ISIS was untold US atrocities in Iraq and in Syria.
Nevertheless, it is very likely that Assad would have fallen to the revolution if not for the intervention of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. This alliance of outside forces provided the military intelligence, airpower and ground forces to make up for the near-collapse of the Syrian Army. With their aid, the regime has been able to re-conquer most of the country.
The cost of Syria’s counter-revolution is hard to comprehend.
Out of a pre-war population of some 22 million, more than half a million people have lost their lives, 6 million have been displaced from their homes, and 6 million have been driven from their country as refugees, mostly to other countries in the Middle East. Assad, Russia and Iran are largely responsible for this humanitarian catastrophe.
Now, with the defeat of ISIS at hand thanks to the US-led war, all the conflicts between the imperial and regional powers in Syria have intensified.
The Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, is in control of most of the population centres of the country and is poised to re-conquer the main areas out of its control.
To win the war against ISIS, the US backed Kurdish forces in the north of Syria – the Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD) dominated the military front called the Syrian Democratic Forces that, with US air support, conquered ISIS’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.
But Washington’s long-time ally Turkey considers the PYD and the Kurds a mortal threat. Turkey fears a Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Syria would inspire a similar uprising for national self-determination within its own borders.
This led to Turkey’s invasion of Syrian territory earlier this year to displace the PYD from the city of Afrin. The offensive is likely to continue against the rest of the majority-Kurd region known as Rojava.
In another grotesque twist, the PYD has appealed to the Assad regime, which has oppressed the Kurds for decades, to back it in defence of Syria against Turkey.
The US seems certain to abandon the Kurds, as it has done on many other occasions – while Russia has postured as the friend of the PYD, while also striking deals with Turkey, in an attempt to woo the NATO country out of the US orbit.
Then there is Israel, which has also intensified its intervention in Syria.
Israel fears that Iran and Hezbollah have established bases and shipment routes that could be used to support Hamas in Palestine. This is the reason behind increased Israeli military attacks against targets in Syria.
Saudi Arabia – the historic rival of Iran since the overthrow of the US-backed Shah in 1978 – is also upping the ante. The Saudis went so far as to volunteer forces to help with the latest US assault on Syria.
Thus, Syria is a cauldron of imperial and regional conflicts that poses intractable problems for US imperialism. This explains the strategic confusion exposed by Trump’s vacillation between threats of withdrawal from Syria and his order for military strikes.
If the US leaves, Russia and Iran will emerge strengthened, regionally and internationally. If Washington intervenes more aggressively, the US comes into conflict with Russia, a nuclear-armed rival determined to retain its increased regional power in the Middle East.
This is why Trump and his war cabinet settled for largely symbolic and inconsequential air strikes in Syria. But it would be a mistake to think that the threats from this latest development are inconsequential.
Trump’s new war cabinet is filled with bomb-first hawks who want a more militarist foreign policy toward not only Iran and North Korea, but also Russia and China.
The Trump administration has already doubled down on an alliance with Saudi Arabia and Israel as a bulwark against the further spread of Iran’s influence. And for all the chatter about the bigot billionaire’s bromance with Putin, the US under Trump has intensified its conflict with Russia, imposing sanctions, expelling diplomats and making open threats.
Even more ominous is the administration’s determination to confront China, not only over trade, but also its increasing assertion of imperial power in Asia and the rest of the world. The two most prominent new appointees to the administration, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, both see the US as locked in an imperial conflict with China.
Though it goes against the grain for many opponents of Trump, the truth is that these sentiments are shared in content, if not in rhetorical form, by many Democrats, including liberals like Elizabeth Warren.
Trump’s display of military might in Syria sets a precedent for intensifying geopolitical conflicts in the region and internationally.
These could well come to a head this May over the renewal of Iran’s nuclear accord, which Trump and his new sabre-rattling advisers like Bolton want to scrap – as well as the summit meeting with North Korea over its nuclear missile program, which could be a ruse for the US to ratchet up the conflict, as it has before.
In these ominous times, the left must take a principled stand that upholds both anti-imperialism and internationalism.
Far too much of the existing left supports imperial powers like China and Russia and dictatorships like Assad’s merely because they oppose the US. In the process, they have become apologists for counter-revolution, recycling conspiracy theories and fake news churned out by oppressive states and their media mouthpieces like Russia Today. The old left slogan “the main enemy is at home” is being used as a cover for refusing to extend solidarity to those struggling against tyranny.
The new left needs a radically different approach. We oppose our own imperialist state, but we also oppose its rivals, like China and Russia – and we have a responsibility to build solidarity with progressive struggles for liberation and democracy, regardless of the state where they take place.
In the case of Syria, this means standing against US intervention, but also opposing that of Russia and Iran. We condemn Assad for his counter-revolutionary violence and repression, and we stand in solidarity with the pro-democracy uprising of the Syrian people. And most importantly, we demand that the US government open its borders to desperate refugees and support them as they rebuild their lives.