U.S. missiles won’t stop Syria’s suffering

April 13, 2018

Emma Wilde Botta explains how the conflict in Syria could spiral out of control after a chemical weapons attack and the Trump administration's threat to retaliate.

ANOTHER NIGHTMARE has been added to the ongoing misery and war in Syria--and there will be more to come if and when Donald Trump makes good on his war threats.

On April 7, a chemical attack carried out by Syrian government forces in the city of Douma in southwestern Syria killed at least 43 people and left many others struggling to breathe.

According to the World Health Organization, about 500 people sought treatment for symptoms consistent with exposure to chemical weapons. The total number of people injured or affected is estimated at more than 1,000. Graphic videos posted by the opposition group Douma Revolution show dead bodies with foam around their mouths.

Trump--who earlier in the week instructed military officials to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria as soon as possible, further confirming that U.S. policy accepts the continued reign of dictator Bashar al-Assad--turned on a dime and denounced the attack and the "animal Assad."

Trump threatened military strikes in retaliation. Earlier this week, he warned Russia--the Syrian regime's main international supporter--to "get ready" for "nice and new and 'smart'" missiles.

Left to right: Victim of the chemical attack in Douma; Donald Trump
Left to right: Victim of the chemical attack in Douma; Donald Trump

The Assad regime denied launching the chemical attack and said reports of the carnage were fabrications intended to hinder efforts to retake Douma from anti-government forces. The Russian government likewise claimed the reports of a gas attack were a "hoax" and warned that its military deployed in Syria would shoot down any U.S. missiles.

The denials are a cruel lie. Even some journalists who entertained doubts about previous chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime acknowledged that the evidence is overwhelming. The barbarism of the Assad dictatorship and its Russian backers has known no bounds in trying to crush the uprising of the Syrian people that began more than seven years ago.

But U.S. Cruise missiles will only make the suffering in Syria worse--and they certainly won't advance the interests of democracy and justice.

Neither Trump nor his more humanitarian-sounding predecessor Barack Obama care about the Syrian people or their demands for democracy. If that wasn't already obvious under Obama, Trump made it crystal clear with one of his first actions in office to indefinitely ban Syrian refugees fleeing the violence and repression of the regime from entering the U.S.

From the beginning of the Arab Spring uprising in Syria, U.S. policy has been aimed at making sure some form of the current regime continues in Syria, with or without Assad. As the regime's savage counterrevolution advanced, thanks to Russian military might, the U.S. has come to accept that Assad will stay, and the Russians will be the powerbrokers in the country.

But that acceptance is at odds with U.S. strategy, particularly in the Trump era, and with the posture of Washington's most important allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. conflicts with regional and other imperialist powers could escalate very quickly, causing more misery and violence in Syria and beyond.

If and when Trump orders a military strike, the U.S. calculation will be about what maintains and advances U.S. imperial power, not about the demands of the Syrian people for an end to war and repression, which we support wholeheartedly.

THE SYRIAN regime has been attempting to retake Eastern Ghouta, a region on the outskirts of the capital of Damascus, from rebel forces. The area has been under government siege since 2013.

In February, the regime began a Russian-backed offensive that pushed anti-Assad forces back to the town of Douma. More than 1,500 civilians have been killed and over 144,000 displaced.

Negotiations between Jaish al-Islam, the Islamist rebel group controlling Douma, and the government broke down on April 6, and the government immediately resumed deadly air strikes on the same day that the chemical weapons attack took place. The regime no doubt felt emboldened to act by reports that Trump was pressing for U.S. withdrawal.

The suspected chlorine gas attack had its intended effect. On Monday, Jaish al-Islam agreed to surrender Douma.

This latest attack is in keeping with Assad's pattern of using chemical weapons against civilians, including a chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta just two months ago. The aim is precisely what took place in Douma--forcing the capitulation of holdout rebel forces.

Chemical weapons are just one element of the Assad regime's barbarism that began in response to the Syrian people's demands for freedom, dignity and democracy in 2011. Seven years later, over half a million people have died, with the Syrian regime responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths.

THE U.S. has had a lukewarm attitude towards Assad from the beginning of the uprising in 2011.

The Obama administration gave rhetorical support to the opposition to Assad, and when the rebellion evolved into chiefly a military conflict, it supported sections of the anti-government rebels. But the goal was to preserve the regime, without Assad at the top and with some of the moderate rebel forces incorporated.

Thus, the U.S. provided some military supplies, but denied rebels access to anti-aircraft or anti-tank weaponry that would have given them a potentially decisive advantage against the Syrian military, which could have led to the fall of the regime altogether.

Once it was obvious that the Assad regime had survived--and after the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which conquered huge parts of Syria--the U.S. shifted in favor of tolerating Assad in power and forming a de facto collaboration with him in the war against ISIS.

Thus, Trump's promised "forceful" response to the latest chemical attack isn't the threatened start of a U.S. military intervention in Syria, but a continuation of it into a new phase.

In 2014, the U.S. began bombing Syria as an extension of its war on ISIS in Iraq. It generally avoided confrontations with the Assad regime.

The British monitoring agency Airwars estimates that U.S.-led coalition air strikes--which were coordinated with the Syrian military--have killed between 3,640 and 5,637 civilians. Since 2015, U.S. troops have been on the ground in northern Syria, working with the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella organization led by the mainly Kurdish People's Protection Units.

THE FIRST U.S. attack to explicitly target the Assad regime took place one year ago when a U.S. Cruise missile hit a Syrian air force base.

Trump claimed that this strike was in retaliation for the government's chemical weapons attack in Idlib. In reality, he was more motivated by the desire to demonstrate to U.S. rivals that the U.S. still had the military might to affect the situation in Syria and elsewhere--and to quiet accusations that he is too close to Assad's most important ally, Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Today, Trump's new National Security Advisor John Bolton makes the administration's saber-rattling even more frightening. Bolton has been explicit about his intentions to push for war, not diplomacy. He has called for pre-emptive strikes on North Korea and abandoning the U.S. government's nuclear deal with Iran, which is the other major international power backing the Assad regime.

Despite the obvious danger of U.S. imperialism escalating its terror, Trump's threatened strike on Syria has won support from U.S. allies in Europe.

At a United Nations Security Council meeting, the U.S. and Russia submitted dueling resolutions to set up an investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria. The U.S., UK and France vetoed Russia's resolution, and Russia vetoed the U.S. proposal.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hinted that Saudi forces may join or support a U.S. strike on Syria, which would put the two main rivals in the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia, in direct military conflict.

THIS IS a dangerous moment. It is unclear what the U.S. could do in Syria that would go beyond its one-off missile attack last year, which had very little effect on the regime. But with Russia determined not to back down in the face of a U.S. show of power, even a small-scale strike by the U.S. could spread very quickly into a conflagration.

Trump is obviously determined to order an attack of some kind--not least to distract attention from the scandalous corruption and chaos of his presidency. But Trump's cabinet of hawks could--in collaboration with allies Israel and Saudi Arabia--use an attack on Syria as a first step in a counteroffensive against Iranian influence in the region, particularly with the renewal of the nuclear accord with Iran at stake.

Meanwhile, in northern Syria, Turkey is continuing a two-month offensive against the Kurdish-majority region known as Rojava. After successfully taking Afrin about three weeks ago, Turkey has turned its attentions to the Manbij region, where U.S. troops are stationed, risking a confrontation between NATO allies.

And earlier this week, an air strike, likely carried out by Israel, hit a Syrian military base near Homs, killing 14 people, including seven Iranian troops--foreshadowing a possible escalation on another front.

Horrific attacks on Syrian civilians are the tragic outcome of a counterrevolutionary civil war waged by the regime and a complex set of proxy wars playing out in Syria.

None of the foreign military interventions in Syria have anything to do with protecting civilians and must be categorically opposed. That means opposing both the U.S. presence in Syria and Russia's and Iran's ongoing support for Assad. Socialists must stand opposed to all foreign intervention in Syria and demand open borders for refugees.

Alan Maass contributed to this article.

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