(A guest post by Amith Gupta.)
After the Syrian dictatorship fired chemical weapons at babies, villagers, and other people who were busy being completely innocent in Idlib last week, I began writing a much longer piece on what I think the role of people who are against imperialism should make of American involvement in that country.
But in the meantime, something else happened. Donald Trump ordered the launch of 60 cruise missiles at the Shayrat Airbase in Homs, ostensibly as a “response” to the killings of over 100 villagers by the Syrian regime. Before I even had the chance to think about it, virtually every antiwar activist I knew was ready to rush to the streets, treating this as an emergency, or even suggesting that this attack was in some way comparable to the US invasion of Iraq. Here is why I think they are wrong on multiple levels.
The Norm Against Chemical Weapons
First and foremost, we should be clear about what Donald Trump and the US regime are actually doing: they are continuing an already-existing campaign of bombing Syria, that has gone on since at least 2014. That bombing campaign has been driven primarily by drones, and has primarily targeted Syrian rebels and rebel-held areas, or ISIS. The strikes have killed numerous innocent people, including the dozens of innocent Muslims praying in a mosque in Aleppo when a single drone strike incinerated them on March 17th. So what changed last night?
There has been an existing norm of international relations since World War I, possibly going back before it, not to use chemical agents. Some argue it was an elitist norm, growing out of a gentlemen’s agreement between European rulers not to use poison, out of their fear of their own assassination. But whatever the reasoning, it took on new meaning after World War I, with the widespread use of mustard gas and the literal fumigation of millions of people. Nor was it limited to combat between the European powers. While Saddam Hussein is often remembered for his use of chemical weapons against Kurds and Iranians, it was Winston Churchill who first dropped such weapons on people in Iraq in 1920.
The norm is in some ways comparable to the norm against the use of nuclear weapons. And for that reason, a number of third world states have historically refused to sign the Chemical Weapons ban: chemical weapons are a poor man’s (or poor country’s) nuke. They can be used for deterrence and they can be used by untrained, poorly equipped regimes to kill large numbers of innocents.
That is why, regardless of what one thinks of the weapons, there is a sudden spike in outrage when such weapons are used in the quarters of the strategic planning rooms of countries that normally do not care when innocents die in Syria or Iraq. Nonetheless, the fact that there is an elitist and Western-state-centric strategic norm against the weapons hardly legitimates the sheer depravity of their use. In the furtherance of maintaining this norm, Trump carried out a strike on a Syrian airbase as direct retaliation for the use of chemical weapons.
While Trump cites Obama’s “failure” to do the same thing in 2013, the truth is that previous US strikes have been rationalized on similar grounds. The most analogous strike that comes to mind is the campaign by Bill Clinton to bomb “suspected” chemical weapons production sites in Iraq in 1998. The attack, in my view, was unjustified and was not based on any actual concerns about chemical weapons. Indeed, the weapons inspection program at the time was compromised because it was sharing sensitive intelligence with the US government. Nonetheless, that was how it was rationalized. To the extent there is a comparison between what Trump has just done and US policy in Iraq, it would be that series of strikes.
And like that operation in 1998, it has little to do with “regime change”. At the time, neoconservative voices who had been pressuring Clinton (and Bush before him) to remove Saddam Hussein from power were treated as unhinged extremists. While Clinton may have made concessions to them, neither he nor George H.W. Bush before him did what they wanted: taking out Saddam Hussein.
In 2017, Donald Trump has staked out a similar position. He has rejected outright the possibility of regime change in Syria, with his aides explicitly telling the rest of the world to “accept the political reality” in Syria, a message that may have been interpreted by Assad as license to use chemical weapons, believing the United States would either not attempt to enforce the norm, or that the response to its use would not be significant, as in 1998 in Iraq. Assad, thusfar, has been correct: while Trump struck a military base and continues dangling other options, there is no indication that Donald Trump wants to unseat Bashar Al-Assad, or that the price the latter will pay for the message he sent to the rebels living in Idlib will be anything significant for him.
“Regime Change” and Empty Comparisons to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq
Let’s discuss how, if at all, this strike is comparable to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. That’s an easy one: it isn’t.
In 2002, a President — surrounded by neoconservative advisors who had come into his administration with Cold War-era delusions about the role of American military power — had spent two years discussing with his confidantes how he would take out Saddam Hussein. Emboldened by the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration cherry-picked and fabricated evidence, some extracted from torture, to argue that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and posed a threat to the United States, Israel, and the rest of the world.
He and his neocon lawyers manipulatively interpreted the existing legal machinery from the first Gulf War, namely multiple UN Security Council resolutions, to justify sending 140,000 American soldiers into Iraq with the explicitly stated purpose of deposing Saddam Hussein. In doing so, he escalated American involvement from US sanctions, which had already killed hundreds of thousands of people, to an outright invasion.
Once Saddam Hussein was deposed, the soldiers occupied Iraq for a decade, leaving behind special forces and military bases, and continuing to supply their corrupt allies with millions of dollars in training and weapons aid. While occupying Iraq, US soldiers and private mercenaries protected and maintained a racist, ethnocratic, sectarian system closely resembling the one used by French colonial powers in Lebanon to keep the Iraqi body politic weak while foreign corporations raked in billions — not only from weapons contracts themselves, but by awarding themselves control over the rebuilding process of nearly everything in Iraq and billing themselves exorbitant prices from the Iraqi treasury.
And to maintain this purposely-broken system of foreign domination, the US military carried out a brutal campaign of counter-insurgency encompassing the exploitation of ethnic tensions, the use of white phosphorous bombs, mass expulsions, torture and rape, mass detentions, and other remnants of colonial-era rule.
Over 4 million people have been thusfar displaced from Iraq (it is hard to count because they have been displaced again, and again, and again); over one million people have been killed (so far); and the country is now split between the corrupt and inhuman Iranian-allied militiamen-turned-politicians that the US left in power and a revanchist Sunni extremist death cult known as ISIS. The former grew out of the sectarian system and the decisive blow to Sunni power in 2007 by Shi’ite-aligned militias, and the latter grew out of the systematic disenfranchisement of Sunnis along with a more extreme wing of Al Qaeda that had begun operating in some parts of Iraq only after the US invasion.
In sum, an otherwise functioning third-world dictatorship that was mostly stable was turned into a fractured country in which the norm is large-scale weekly massacres carried out by ethnic militias competing for power within a US-built sectarian state, where civil war and instability has essentially been institutionalized. Nearly 2 decades later, Iraqis are still applying to become refugees from the war, and they continue languishing in refugee camps in Iraq, in Jordan, and elsewhere throughout the region.
Trump’s strike on the Syrian airbase is not even remotely comparable.
As a preliminary distinction: He didn’t lie about the use of weapons of mass destruction. Bashar Al-Assad undeniably sprayed sarin gas at Syrians. The attempts to argue it was someone else strike me as a stomach-turning example of how far people will go to force reality to fit into a Manichean worldview. Virtually all weapons experts from all backgrounds, civilian and military, agreed that the symptoms exhibited by the children in the videos coming from Idlib were the symptoms of sarin. The alternative explanation given by apologists for Assad — that the weapons leaked out of a rebel weapons factory after it was bombed by the Syrian army — have been rejected by all of them, as they point out that sarin would not “leak” but simply burn up in such a scenario. In contrast, Saddam Hussein complied with weapons inspectors and had not used those weapons since the 1980s. There wasn’t any evidence that Saddam Hussein even had any such weapons.
Second: The US isn’t invading Syria. The comparison between a single airstrike and a 140,000-man army is absurd. Likewise, the US was already attacking Syria before this strike: using drones and special forces. Almost all of these strikes have hit rebel groups, signifying that to the extent that the US was already involved in Syria, it was effectively backing up the regime. So unlike the 2003 invasion, which was a dramatic escalation, the US bombing of the Syrian airbase isn’t even an escalation. It is the same level of involvement that the US already had, with the sole difference being that the target was the Syrian government rather than the Syrian government’s opponents — or, as is plenty common with US airstrikes, completely innocent people in Syria. Indeed, a Trump airstrike had struck a mosque in Aleppo only several weeks ago, in which 57 people died. There was no “emergency,” no angry statements, no reaffirmations of our opposition to imperialism. Generally, nobody really cared. They didn’t support it by any means, but the Left also did not rally around it.
So the suggestion that this is an escalation of any kind — let alone an outright invasion or even the precursor to an invasion — does not make any sense. If anything, it is simply a continuation of what the United States was already doing — firing bombs at Syria — with the slight change that instead of hitting worshippers in Aleppo, it hit regime storm troopers at a military base.
Of course, things can always change. Perhaps tonight Donald Trump will order sending 11 billion US soldiers into Syria, and while he is at it, maybe he’ll throw Hillary Clinton in jail. When that happens, call me.
Third, and most importantly: Syria isn’t an already stable country. When the US invaded Iraq, Iraq had an economy roughly the size of Greece — an impressive feat given the character of US sanctions and the war with Iran. Multiple ethnic groups in Iraq lived in relative peace, with Christians and Muslims celebrating each other’s holidays. Mixed-sect marriages and families were not only accepted, but common. The idea that one could be beaten or murdered in the streets of a major Iraqi city for religious/sectarian reasons, or the idea that entire families would be broken up and separated because married partners were from different sects, was so unheard of that the concern was laughed off by apologists for the Iraq invasion when it was brought up by critics in 2002/03.
All of that came crashing down with the US occupation and invasion of Iraq. Can that be said for US airstrikes on the Syrian military? Is it even remotely believable that the people of Syria, suffering on camera for 5 straight years, watching their friends and family die (or kill), disappear, drown, evaporate — that *this* is the point at which there is some sort of emergency for them? The reaction of sudden protests around the US strike on the airbase exposes a schism of disconnect between the actual suffering in Syria and the position of Western anti-war activists. Somehow, their sensors of what is or isn’t an emergency situation prompting statements, walkouts, protests, diplomatic intervention, and outrage, are not actually geared to what is happening in Syria. They are geared to what the US is doing to its dictatorship, its primary tormentor. So let’s talk about that.
The Role of Western Anti-War Activists
It is understandable that people on the Left in Western countries want to primarily focus their efforts on matters for which their own governments are directly responsible. That is laudable: We do not have meaningful control or effect on foreign governments, but we often have direct control over the role of our own, even if it is through something as simple as protesting. The purpose of all forms of activism, lest they be empty humanitarian posturing, are to be directed at those who govern.
And yet, the story that Western leftists have told themselves about Syria and their relationship to that country has not been consistent with this goal. According to the dominant western left narrative, Syrian opposition groups are “contras” that are co-opted or entirely controlled by the West, and the US is backing them as part of a campaign to overthrow the Syrian regime. Under these assumptions, one can see how strikes on the airbase fall into a much larger narrative that the Western left has constructed, in which at any time, the US is about to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad and unleash havoc on the people of Syria.
Of course, the narrative is flawed in numerous ways, the most obvious being that the US hardly needs to do more to unleash havoc (see point 3 in the previous section). But on top of this, to the extent that the US has backed various opposition groups, the support has been partial. Nor did it come with air support or NATO no fly zones. Indeed, even the one politician who had any real intention of imposing such a measure — Hillary Clinton — has backed off the idea. Moreover, the US aid to rebel groups has often come with the intention of splitting those rebel groups against each other — ensuring that none of them have a monopolized power over the rebellion while continuing to weaken ISIS and other jihadist groups that are undermining the US-manufactured ethnocracy in Iraq.
And most importantly, the existing campaign of airstrikes have been almost entirely aimed at the opposition and opposition-held areas, or ISIS. This is, objectively speaking, a manner of *supporting* the Assad regime. Even the introduction of US troops into Syria matches this policy objective of stabilizing Assad’s rule by attacking opposition groups — not the regime.
Some have interpreted our criticisms and drudging up these prior US airstrikes as an allegation of purity: “Why weren’t you out here protesting earlier!? Where have you been!? I’m clearly more principled than you!”
Not quite. The point is not that the US has been striking Syria for years, so there is no reason to get upset now. The point is that the Western Left has chosen exactly the wrong target for its “sympathy”. There is no way to deny the blatant nature of silence when the US struck rebel-held areas and killed hundreds of innocent people. While the Syrian regime continues to have the monopoly on murdering innocent Syrians, US airplanes have been responsible for thousands of innocent deaths in Syria as it is.
The point is that the Western Left did not see an “emergency” until one of those strikes intentionally hit the Syrian army. It is not a question of arriving late to the party. It is a question of which party the Western Left is arriving to. The idea that it constitutes some sort of “emergency” or even something warranting concern that the US has struck not civilians but a legitimate military target belonging to a regime that has gassed innocent people within the prior week sends a very strong message about who “counts” for our sympathy — and who doesn’t.
To give an analogy, many of us on the Left have mobilized around police brutality and state repression carried out by the FBI. But few took to the streets when the FBI killed a member of the right-wing extremist militia that had taken over a wildlife preserve in Oregon during a shoot-out. Likewise, most on the Left would likely mobilize against the NYPD’s policies of Stop-and-Frisk and the numerous police shootings that have taken place in New York. But how many would mobilize in a protest against the NYPD’s policy of deterring child abuse? That is, criticizing the US government is one thing; *why* we criticize it and *what things we mobilize around* are crucial and risk sending exactly the wrong message.
In the last month, no protests took place around the US campaign of drone strikes against Syrian villagers. The drone strikes almost gain greater criticism because of the Brave-New-World-character of the weapon in question, rather than the fact that they are being used to achieve the policy goal of stabilizing Syria by keeping Assad in power. Indeed, the drone wars are often just bunched together based on weapon type (drone) rather than where they are being used and for what purpose (such as in Syria, where they are used against the Opposition). And that is to the extent that there has been any attention to them at all.
In contrast, the mobilization around “US Intervention” against an airstrike retaliating for the use of chemical weapons, combined with the (relative) silence about the ongoing drone war against Syria, sends a fairly strong message about who or what constitutes a “red line” for the Western Left. The red line is not the deaths of Syrians, or even US intervention. It is US intervention targeting the regime, even if it is to maintain the norm against chemical weapons use. Within the 2 years of US war on Syria, why is *this* the point to emphasize? Why are we using the campaign against US intervention to carry water for the regime? Such bombings are, if anything, the silver lining of American overreach in the world. Like the fact that the FBI occassionally stops right-wing extremists, or the Police occasionally stop domestic abuse, or the fact that the NSA occassionally cracks down on a kiddy porn ring, they are an example in which the “bad guys” in power crack down on, well, another “bad guy”. This hardly warrants sympathy, let alone to be the banner of opposition to US involvement in Syria.
More importantly, the narrative around which this line is built ignores the actuality of US involvement in Syria — the actual policy that Western leftists should oppose. That policy has not been one of driving the opposition to overthrow Assad. Rather, that policy has been to use imperial hubris and fancy new air equipment to *prevent* the opposition from doing precisely that, knowing that US interests are better off in the hands of a known tyrant whose capacities are weakened than an unknown and unpredictable one that replaces him.
Indeed, the risks of Syrians overthrowing Assad are immense. What if the Syrian people decide to not only stop, but declassify all the evidence of Syrian regime collaboration with the US government’s international torture campaign? What if the Syrian people elect a government that actively risks liberating the Golan Heights from Israeli occupation? What if the Syrians set up a government that is interested in Arab unity rather than Ba’athism? What if they elect a regime that wants independence for the Kurdish minority? What if they begin spreading these dangerous ideas of democracy, unity, and anti-imperialism into Iraq, Iran, and Palestine? Such risks are those that the United States cannot afford. Hence, the United States must do whatever it can to control the opposition and ensure that a manageable tyrant who spends most of his time killing Syrians rather than Israeli soldiers stays in place, albeit too weak to scuttle regional policy initiatives.
And that is why an anti-interventionist, anti-imperialist movement in the United States should start, first and foremost, by questioning why the United States believes it has the authority to bomb the Syrian opposition and undermine their struggle. Such a movement should not be distracted when, on occassion, the United States needs to discipline its favorite bad option to prevent the use of chemical weapons.