Last Thursday evening, the Trump administration launched dozens of cruise missiles at an airfield belonging to the Syrian Arab Air Force. It did so ostensibly in response to a chemical attack that had taken place in Khan Sheikhoun two days earlier and which resulted in the deaths of at least 74 people. It did so without congressional approval and in violation of the principles of international law.
The notion that Trump and his capos acted out of a humanitarian concern for Arab lives should be treated with the scorn it deserves. Trump was decidedly unmoved by the suffering of those who were gassed at Ghouta three summers ago, as evidenced by his tweets at the time. He has been determined since taking office to prevent Syrians from claiming asylum in the United States, having declared on the campaign trail last year that he would be prepared to ‘look [Syrian children] in their faces and say, ‘You can’t come.” His administration is all set to approve the sale by Raytheon of ‘precision-guided’ munitions worth $300m to the Saudi regime, whose war crimes in Yemen mean that a child under the age of five is dying there for want of food or medicine every 10 minutes. And of course, Trump’s chosen Pentagon chief, General James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, was the commanding officer during the battles of Fallujah in 2004, when U.S. troops deployed depleted uranium and white phosphorus against innocent Iraqis, women and children included.
Despite all this, the New York Times wanted us to believe last week that ‘[o]n [the] Syria attack, Trump’s heart came first’. Indeed, most of the corporate press on both sides of the Atlantic saluted Trump for his ‘boldness’ and ‘decisiveness’ — for having become ‘presidential’ — where previously they had taken pains to warn us of his volatility and the grave danger he posed to the ‘rules-based world order’. The collective volte-face was jarring, and it stank.
In fact, of all the laptop bombardiers, it seems that only Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian pulled his punches in endorsing the intervention. Having excoriated Trump on the Wednesday for his inaction vis-à-vis Syria, Freedland excoriated the 45th President two days later for snapping out of that inaction. Nevertheless, he considered the strikes themselves to be necessary. Such slipperiness calls to mind an anecdote told by Norman Finkelstein, one that captures well the corruption of the ‘intelligent minority’ whose job it is to manufacture consent on behalf of elite interests:
[W]hen my book, The Holocaust Industry, came out in 2000, Freedland wrote that I was ‘closer to the people who created the Holocaust than to those who suffered in it’. Although he appears to be, oh, so politically correct now, he didn’t find it inappropriate to suggest that I resembled the Nazis who gassed my family.
We appeared on a television program together. Before the program, he approached me to shake my hand. When I refused, he reacted in stunned silence. Why wouldn’t I shake his hand? He couldn’t comprehend it. It tells you something about these dull-witted creeps. The smears, the slanders – for them, it’s all in a day’s work. Why should anyone get agitated? Later, on the program, it was pointed out that the Guardian, where he worked, had serialised The Holocaust Industry across two issues. He was asked by the presenter, if my book was the equivalent of Mein Kampf, would he resign from the paper? Of course not. Didn’t the presenter get that it’s all a game? (emphasis added)
The other notion that has arisen in the last few days and which must be squashed is that the bombardment of Shayrat airfield was akin to Bush the Younger’s invasion of Iraq and as such represents something like the beginning of the end of the U.S. government’s campaign to ‘topple’ Bashar al-Assad. This delusive interpretation of events can be rejected for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the strategic value of last Thursday’s isolated strikes was nil, not least because Assad was put on notice by the Kremlin before they occurred (and will no doubt continue to be so notified should Trump order further such strikes in future). The base at any rate remained operational after it was hit, which undermines the case even of those who have claimed that the bombing succeeded as a ‘symbolic’ act if nothing else.
Secondly, the mechanical conspiracism of many so-called ‘anti-imperialists’ is and has always been unequal to the task of grasping the history and development of this conflict. For instance, why, if it was hell-bent on deposing Assad as swiftly as possible, did the U.S. government block the delivery of MANPADS to rebels for so many years? Why, having intervened in Libya and made clear that he didn’t need congressional approval for military action in Syria, did Obama fail to move against the regime in 2013, and how are the conditions for such an intervention any more favourable now? Why did Obama effectively decide to stabilise Assadist rule when he entered into a de facto alliance with Putin against Daesh? Why have successive administrations systematically pounded the very same opposition groups — for example Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — that they are supposed to have armed to the teeth? And why, just days before the latest chemical attack, did Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations and his secretary of state confirm that their priority was ‘no longer’ to facilitate Assad’s departure? If it’s true that a serious attempt at regime change has been afoot for more than half a decade, then we may say that such an attempt has been astoundingly incompetent at best and one that the tyrant had all but succeeded in seeing off. Even the Assadist Left acknowledges as much when it questions why its man would possibly have deployed nerve agents in Khan Sheikhoun given that he was ‘winning the war’.
Some of those Assadists are denouncing the attack on Shayrat in singularly ferocious terms, as though the U.S. government hadn’t already breached Syrian sovereignty hundreds of times since its warplanes first descended on the east of the country in September 2014. We must remember that U.S.-led carnage in Syria did not commence last Thursday, nor did its maiden instances occur in March with the bombing of that mosque near Aleppo or that school full of displaced persons in Raqqa. In fact it has cost the lives of thousands of innocents over a period of years, and yet many appear to have saved their fiercest shows of anger for this, Trump’s Damascene moment. But it is not, as Amith Gupta has written, ‘a question of arriving late to the party. It is a question of which party the Western Left is arriving to.’ Too many leftists reacted out of all proportion to last week’s strikes, with a fury that is tightly stoppered when Assad’s much more monstrous criminality is under discussion. Too many have swallowed whole the ‘war-on-terror’ narrative that the regime has constructed in order to justify its barbarism and which is rightly given short shrift when it dribbles from the mouths of (say) U.S. or Israeli officials.
And too many refuse even now to see that the Syrian dictator is a butcher and a dog whose government, in the words of the United Nations, has committed not just war crimes but ‘the crimes against humanity of extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts’ on a scarcely conceivable scale. Beginning in June 2011, Assad released from prison innumerable violent extremists who went on to form the nuclei of some of the more unsavoury elements of the Syrian opposition. He later invited foreign occupiers — primarily Russian and Iranian — to assist in the incineration of his own people. Syria today, like Iraq before it, is the most harrowing nightmare you can imagine made flesh and blood and wreckage, and the greater part of the culpability is not Obama’s or Trump’s but Assad’s and Putin’s. Certain leftists hem and haw in acknowledging this, because their Oedipal ‘anti-imperialism’ has led them to choose ‘exactly the wrong targets’ for their “sympathy”.
In any case, the fact is that U.S. policy on Syria since 2011 has consisted of a mass of contradictions which cannot be reconciled unless one understands that perpetual war, and the instability which flows therefrom, were likely always the aim or at least became so early on. Trump’s intervention was entirely consistent with such an aim and seems so still.
After all, it’s not as if there weren’t a slew of other reasons — every last one of them cynical — for Trump to take the course of action that he did. What better way to demonstrate your virility as POTUS than to let loose a few Tomahawks at some hell-hole in the Middle East? What better opportunity to jumpstart your approval ratings — lower than those of any previous president after 70 days in office — and enjoy bipartisan acclamation whilst you’re at it? How else might you look to refute the suggestion that you are Agent Orange, controlled directly from Moscow by Assad’s protector Vladimir Putin? This last, of course, could yet prove costly, as calls to ratchet up sanctions against Russia grow louder. So much for the drive towards de-escalation, supposedly Trump’s saving grace. . .