By Javier Sethness, for the Coalition for Peace, Revolution, and Social Justice
On Friday evening, 13 April, U.S. President Donald Trump announced the commencement of joint U.S. missile and air strikes with France and the U.K. against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in response to the Syrian military’s alleged use of chemical weapons during the siege of Douma on April 7th. This chemical attack on Douma has reportedly taken the lives of more than forty people and, according to the Syrian-American Medical Society, at least five hundred others have presented with symptoms consistent with exposure to chemical weapons—likely chlorine and possibly also sarin.
The Douma gas massacre, for which Assad is clearly responsible, represents the culmination of the regime’s long siege of the rebel-held Damascus suburb, a campaign which began in 2013, aimed at retaking control of the whole of Eastern Ghouta. During the ferocious intensification of Ghouta’s bombardment, which began on February 18 and ended with Ghouta’s fall just days ago, Assad and Russia cruelly murdered an estimated two thousand civilians using napalm, cluster munitions, and chemical weapons in an indiscriminate assault on residences and hospitals alike. It was the Douma chemical attack which finally led Jaish al-Islam, the last rebel group holding out in the region, to surrender and accept forced transfer to the northwestern province of Idlib, thus yielding full control of the city to State forces. As Frieda Afary observes, the fall of Eastern Ghouta to Assad recalls the regime’s previous conquest of Eastern Aleppo in December 2016, portending the defeat of the Syrian Revolution. Meanwhile, Trump allows Turkey a free hand to attack the Kurds in northwestern Syria.
Into this fraught context come the joint U.S.-U.K.-French strikes of April 13-14. The strikes have consisted of an estimated 100 missiles fired from naval and air forces in the Eastern Mediterranean against the regime’s Scientific Studies and Research Center in the Barzeh district of Damascus, as well as suspected chemical-weapons depots and a control center west of Homs. There are unconfirmed reports that the Hama military airport and al-Shirai and al-Dumayr airbases near Damascus have also been targeted, in addition to other suspected chemical-weapons sites around the capital city. According to U.S. General John Dunford, these strikes aim to “deter future chemical-weapon use” on Assad’s part. For its part, the Russian military claims to have intercepted almost 70% of the incoming missile strikes, as it had promised to do in the days leading up to the attack, though the Pentagon has cast doubt on this assertion. The number of casualties from the strikes has not been clearly reported so far, but it is likely to be significant. Plus, striking chemical-weapons depots with missiles may recklessly endanger nearby populations.
Still, in effect, these punitive strikes hardly amount to an overwhelming military response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and they certainly do not anticipate larger strikes aimed at reversing the regime’s gains in the war. While announcing the strikes in joint press conference with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis on April 13th, Dunford declared that “operations are [now] complete.” Indeed, the potential military damage done by the strikes was greatly mitigated by Trump’s sustained telegraphing of the raid, which allowed regime forces ample time to abandon their bases, transfer aircraft and matériel to Russian military sites, and even supposedly evacuate Assad himself. Effectively, then, the attack is little different than the largely symbolic missile strikes Trump ordered against Syria’s al-Shayrat airbase in response to the Khan Sheikhoun sarin gas attack of April 2017.
Although the U.S., the U.K., and former colonial power France are effectively invoking international law and the “responsibility to protect” doctrine in their punitive strikes on Syria, we find such pretexts cynical. By continuing and intensifying established Obama-era practices, Trump has murdered thousands of Syrians and Iraqis, particularly through his loosening of rules of engagement and his attendant granting of greater decision-making power to his field commanders. Moreover, the Trump Regime has completely rejected its responsibilities toward the millions of Syrian refugees, denying all but 11 of them entry to the U.S. so far this year. This illuminates its true lack of concern for those starved, bombarded, gassed, imprisoned, tortured, displaced, and assassinated by the Assad Regime and its allies. As Leila al-Shami writes, the recent strikes are “less about protecting Syrians from mass-atrocity and more about enforcing an international norm that chemical weapons use is unacceptable, lest one day they be used on westerners themselves.” In like manner, Trump’s open support for Israeli atrocities against unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza mobilizing to demand their rights further illustrates the emptiness of his sudden claim to be the champion of oppressed Syrians.
Additionally, we cannot overlook the fact that this attack comes at a particularly sensitive time for Trump, whose attorney Michael Cohen just had his office, home, and hotel room raided by the FBI, on the referral of Robert Mueller. We therefore see a clear element of distraction in these strikes, noting a clear parallel with the case of Bill Clinton, who resorted on two occasions to bombing Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq in 1998 to distract attention from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Currently, Trump faces not one but several domestic political scandals. In addition, Trump clearly seeks to capitalize on these strikes to promote his image and brand ahead of the upcoming midterm elections—and conceivably, the 2020 presidential elections, too—as being “different from Obama,” who famously failed to enforce the “red lines” he had outlined following the regime’s ghastly sarin attack on Eastern Ghouta in August 2013.
We should clearly recognize that this attack isn’t designed with “regime change” in mind. No: despite official criticisms of his regime’s brutality, Assad serves too important a function to the U.S. to be deposed—namely, oppressing and murdering Sunni Arab Muslims who revolt against oppression en masse, thus maintaining geopolitical “stability.” As Nicole Magnoona Gervitz writes paradoxically, Assad in fact serves Western and Israeli interests: “An Arab despot who crushes his own people always has a special place in the Zionist heart. Israel [and the U.S.] ha[ve] always relied on corrupt Arab despots like Bashar al Assad to put down the masses for them.” So the imperialist demagogue Trump, true to form, is really just posturing as a humanitarian with these strikes, seeking to gain political capital and unsully his own reputation as a brutal, uncaring criminal. In the wake of the attack, indeed, the Pentagon was quick to clarify to Syrian refugees in the Jordanian border camp of Rukban that this was a limited, retaliatory strike, and that any offensive action they might take against regime forces in response would not be supported by the imperialist militaries.
In essence, then, the joint Anglo-Franco-American strikes symbolize the spectacle of bourgeois international relations, whereby one authoritarian-imperialist camp attacks another merely out of concern for image, but without substance. We lament the civilians whose lives have been taken by these attacks, as well as those who have been and continue to be murdered by Assad’s forces and their allies, in their bid to drown the Syrian Revolution. We condemn the militarism, imperialism, and authoritarianism of the Western powers as well as of Assad and his backers, and we look forward to the coordinated unification and intensification of international popular struggles to depose tyrants and borders alike.
Stop the U.S.-Russian-Iranian attack on Syria!
For a free Syria and a free Kurdistan!
Syrian refugees must be allowed asylum!
Down with all forms of imperialism, war, xenophobia, and religious intolerance!
For human liberation and an end to exploitation and domination everywhere!