Apr 20, 2017
After the chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun, a village in Syria, the U.S. news media put the war in Syria on the front pages. Trump, on cue, shifted his gears, moving from a kind of “oh-well-that’s-war” stance to a tearful oration about how bad the injuries to Syrian children made him feel, only to announce the next day that the U.S. had bombed the Al Shayrat air base that was supposed to be at the origin of Syria’s chemical weapons attack. The New York Times, followed by almost every major media source, praised at least the tone of his announcement and implicitly his actions for being “presidential.”
For five years, during which the Syrian population had suffered at least 400,000 deaths, and half the population had been forced to leave their homes, the war has raged.
Nonetheless, before the chemical attack, the war rarely had been noted by the U.S. news media. When it was, it usually was in connection with the refugee crisis, or with ISIS. In any case, almost across the board, the war was depicted as a civil war between competing religious and ethnic groups, as well as warlords, with other countries in the Middle East somehow stirring the pot. Eventually, ISIS was presented as some kind of factor, as was Russia’s bombing of targets, apparently occasionally – but what kind of factors, who knew?
In fact, the war going on in Syria is the U.S.’s war, and not only because Donald Trump, in announcing the bombing, made it a U.S. war. It’s been the U.S.’s war for the last five years because the U.S. paid for it.
Clearly most of the ground fighting had been carried out by the Syrian army on the one hand and by a multitude of militias on the other, who were fighting not only against the regime’s army, but often against each other.
But the largest amount of money for these militias has come from regimes like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It’s obvious, given the long-standing ties between the U.S. and these countries, and, what is more important, the funding and weapons the U.S. funnels to them, that neither country would have provided the means for the war to go on if the U.S. were opposed. The U.S. may not have claimed this war as its own, but it didn’t need to. Money spoke all that needs to be said about U.S. responsibility for it.
So, given what happened in Iraq, what could conceivably have been the U.S. interest in Syria? It’s obvious the region is awash in oil, but as Iraq has demonstrated, a country broken to pieces by a war can create havoc in other parts of the region. Could the U.S. actually be so stupid, after Iraq, so as to create another unstable situation in the Middle East, this time in Syria, by its own action? Above all, would the U.S. be so stupid, given that the region, where oil is so important, was already so rift by civil wars and social tensions?
It’s not a question of smart or stupid. For the U.S., the world’s only remaining superpower, the world is a kind of checkerboard with the different pieces – countries, regimes, dictators, armies, etc. – to be moved around as pawns, feinting one line of attack, only to come behind with another one. It had learned after Iraq, as it once had after Viet Nam, that it could not always unilaterally impose a regime of its own choice. But it also had learned how to play this international chess game.
When the so-called “Arab Spring” made its way into Syria six years ago, with opposition to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad breaking out into the open, the U.S. apparently began to probe, to see whether al-Assad might be removed without too many problems.
The Syrian dictatorship had evolved in ways similar to those under which Saddam Hussein occupied power in Iraq, allowing each to occasionally take some independence from the dictates of imperialism, even when they basically served imperialism’s interests in their region. In other words, he was an annoyance.
Effectively, the U.S. engaged itself to test the situation, after the protests died down in Syria, to be replaced by a growing civil war carried out by Saudi-backed militias. By giving a tacit approval to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other regimes in the area to fund those militias, to send in arms, sometimes troops, the U.S. perhaps expected that al-Assad would fall. Beyond that, the U.S. may have hoped to deprive Russia of an ally and a naval base, both of which Syria provided for Russia.
But al-Assad’s regime was stronger than it might have looked. Over the course of several years, it not only withstood the protests; its army didn’t crack in front of the militias that attacked in different regions of the country. Turkey, worried about the Kurds who at one point were fighting against al-Assad, began to intervene. And the al-Assad regime was reinforced when forces claiming allegiance to ISIS returned to Syria from Iraq, eventually driving some groupings opposed to al-Assad back into his corner, at least for now.
With the war seeming to settle into a test between al-Assad and ISIS, the U.S. quietly began to shift direction almost three years ago to focus on preventing ISIS from gaining a stronghold. It clearly found an accommodation with Russia, which all along had been providing aerial support for the Syrian regime. As the U.S. began to bomb inside Syria, and Russia continued, the two countries pretty clearly co-ordinated their bombing.
Since mid-2014, the U.S. has carried out 18,900 air strikes on Iraq and Syria together – targeting these countries with 72,000 bombs and missiles. This violent campaign, which started under Obama, now continues under Trump. This is apparently what the Times means by “being presidential.”
And if anyone doubts that the U.S. had worked out an accommodation with Russia over military actions in Syria, all they need do is look at the announcement the U.S. military made about the bombing of the Syrian air base. The U.S. military said it had “informed” Russia before the U.S. attack, to make sure no Russian forces were bombed by mistake. The Russians, no doubt, informed their ally, the Syrian regime. The only one not to know in advance were the Syrian people, with whom Donald Trump proclaimed such loud sympathy.
Whatever happens now in Syria, the U.S. intervention is more out in the open, which does not mean that the tortured chess game isn’t continuing on behind the scenes.
Finally, two days before the U.S. military bombed Syria’s air base, it carried out a kind of “coup” – in the very loosest sense of the term – at home. Steve Bannon, as recently as early April portrayed as Trump’s chief adviser, was removed from the National Security Council’s Principals Table. The generals, who had been demoted from it by Trump, re-assumed their traditional place leading it. Trump marked his acknowledgment of their takeover by declaring that he would leave all military decisions up to the military. It was as if, in this complicated chess match the U.S. was playing, which engaged a multitude of players and of nations, involving sharp turns of directions and double crosses, the game was too important to be left to an unpredictable, Twitter-loving egomaniac like Trump.
And the New York Times, like so much of the rest of the media, is pleased. The generals are free to pursue the war they had been pursuing under Obama.
In all of this, nothing serves the interest of the Syrian people, nor of working people in the U.S.