The U.S. missile strikes against an airport military facility near Homs, Syria, has opened a new chapter in Syria’s bloody six-year civil war. A key question, even as the political and military fallout is still settling, is how dangerous this escalation will become.
The war already has claimed as many as 500,000 lives, and more than 12 million Syrians have lost their homes. The refugee crisis continues, along with the rise of terrorism and populism worldwide.
President Donald Trump ordered the airstrikes in retaliation for a chemical attack on April 3, an attack which claimed almost 100 lives, many of them children, and in which the Assad government and its Russian allies are implicated. Other reports, including from within the United Nations, claim it is likely opposition fighters in Idlib committed the atrocity, and so the blame game goes on as it has since the start of this conflict.
A number of concerns arise from these new developments. First, after six years of carnage, the Syrian people are increasingly the target of local and foreign governments in their own country. There seems to be no diplomatic or military solution that favors the Syrian people. Public discussion and analysis of the airstrikes and chemical attack are almost exclusively about assessing the merits or faults of Trump’s intervention, what Putin’s response will be, or to what extent the Assad government will be weakened.
At no point has there been substantive discussion or debate on how to throw all our weight behind diplomacy, twisting arms and non-lethal economic retaliation.
Second, how dangerous is this escalation? Will Putin tell Assad to take one for the team and bring down the conflict a couple of notches? Or will Russia come into direct conflict with the United States? The latter looms larger as the Russians have suspended the 2015 agreement “de-conflicting” Russian and Syrian airstrikes in Syria (whose originally stated enemy was ISIS).
Third, how much of this is a distraction from the altogether unstable Trump administration? With the sacking of Michael Flynn and the removal of chief advisor Steve Bannon from a coveted seat on the National Security Council and chief of staff Reince Priebus on apparently shaky ground, Trump can benefit from less attention on his unsteady first months in office. Or is this a distraction from the death toll in Mosul, where U.S. air strikes killed as many as 200 Iraqi civilians on March 24?
The GOP are, as expected, eager for war, as they were under George W. Bush and the catastrophic invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Also, much of the media is spending its time juxtaposing the “action” of Trump’s airstrikes, versus the “inaction” of Obama’s attempt to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons. History teaches that either path – direct military engagement of Assad, or turning a blind eye – has large human and material costs.
The airstrikes come a week after Trump said removing Assad was no longer a priority. Supporters of the Syrian government claim the chemical was an act of sabotage by the opposition to frame Assad. The opposition claims that Assad was emboldened to get away with murder after Trump’s statements.
That doesn’t necessarily hold. Assad has been massacring the civilian population for years, before world’s own eyes. He could have been assassinated numerous times, but he was not. As in the chemical attack of 2013, it seems unclear to me why a brutal dictator already getting away with murder would need to switch from conventional weapons to chemical weapons. However, the fog of war is thick, and the patience of men has worn thin.
A last-ditch effort at diplomacy after the Syrian government and the Russians re-conquered Aleppo from opposition fighters in 2016 (and Homs in 2015) was squandered. This new round of airstrikes pushes the dream of a diplomatic solution even further afield. The U.S. is getting dragged into perpetual war in the Middle East once again, with no military strategy or intent for diplomacy.
My fear is that we as citizens of the most powerful country in the world are becoming inculcated in or addicted to war. Despite most Americans losing any desire for war after Iraq renewed threats of global terrorism and the rise of populism are once again feeding the Narrative of War. In this respect, the Trump Administration is merely following the unofficial handbook of American foreign policy, namely airstrikes and – if the political will permits – ground invasion. The Trump Administration does not appear to possess sophistication or imaginative capability to bring about a diplomatic solution.
Does this mean the only way to effect change on the world stage is through brute force? If we buy into this outmoded narrative – again – then the spread of global warfare and terrorism will become stronger and more inevitable.
Let us not forget one final mantra, perpetual war is good for perpetual business. Raytheon, producer of the Tomahawk missiles used to attack Syria, has seen its stock soar on the market. This is good for Trump, who owns Raytheon stocks, and all the other and other wealthy movers and shakers in the business of making war. This is to say nothing of energy and development contracts–the ‘spoils of war.’
In recent years, instability in the Middle East and deteriorating relations between Putin and Obama have made conflicts around the world a zero sum game. In the end, the U.S. or Russia and their so called allies will need to give up influence, cede territory and stop destroying sovereign nations if Syria is to have a future and the world a chance to stabilize. The sooner we all learn this the better.