(The guided-missile destroyer USS Porter conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea, April 7, 2017. (Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ford Williams))
For those attempting to make some kind of rational sense of how we have arrived at Trump bombing Syria within literally a few days of his administration suggesting that regime change in that country was no longer being actively pursued, I would recommend the following four articles to understand the context and as a call for skepticism regarding these actions.
The first article is by Vijay Prashad, an international relations expert who teaches at Trinity College and has provided some good in depth analysis of the Syria war in the past. I reproduce his article, which originally appeared at Alternet, in its entirety. It is fairly concise and urges the reader to ask questions and not allow propaganda and manipulative appeals to emotion to overtake reason when it comes to a country in which both nuclear superpowers have a military presence:
At the United Nations Security Council on April 5, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley held up pictures of children killed by a gas attack in Khan Shaykhun, south of the Syrian city of Idlib. Estimates suggest about 50 to 60 people died in this attack. The United States, the United Kingdom and France placed a resolution before the Security Council condemning the attack and asking for an investigation of it. There is no call for armed action against anyone because the Council is divided on who perpetuated the act.
Strikingly, Ambassador Haley then said, “We don’t yet know about yesterday’s attack,” meaning nobody had definitive intelligence about the attack. Yet, there was a hasty dash to judgment in the West that the perpetrator was the government of Bashar al-Assad—perhaps with Russian assistance.
How do we know what happened in Khan Shaykhun? The sources for the Western media outlets are mainly “opposition activists,” as BBC put it in one of its early reports. A BBC story from April 4 (Syria Conflict: ‘Chemical attack’ in Idlib kills 58) lists the various sources it has relied upon:
1. Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). Founded in 2006, SOHR is based in the United Kingdom and receives funding from the European Union and—most likely—the United Kingdom. It relies upon a network of opposition activists across Syria to provide raw information, which its director, Rami Abdul Rahman, then digests. SOHR is openly anti-Assad.
2. Khotwa (Step) news agency. Founded by opposition activists in late 2013, Khotwa—as they say—aims to “bring the world’s attention to the suffering of the Syrian people.” Its 40 correspondents are mostly based in rebel-held areas. In 2014, its director, Mohammad Hrith, was in the news in Turkey due to a fracas between Hrith and the Prime Minister of the Syrian interim government Ahmed Touma. Touma’s people suggested Hrith came to demand funds from them.
3. Local Co-ordination Committee (LCC) of the town. The LCC is part of a network of local groups emerged to coordinate protests after 2011. They represent the politics of the area in which they are established. Their general tenor is anti-Assad.
4. Hussein Kayal, a photographer with the pro-opposition Edlib Media Center. Kayal and the Edlib Media Center are part of a network of journalists including those involved with the Aleppo Media Center. They are affiliated with the Syrian Expatriate Organization, led by Mazen Hasan, who is a leading figure in the Syrian opposition that is based in the West and a key person in the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for a Democratic Syria. The Coalition has been urging U.S. armed action to overthrow the Syrian government.
5. An AFP news agency journalist (unnamed). Some of the main photographs from Idlib came from two Agence France-Presse photographers, Omar Haj Kadour and Mohamed al-Bakour. Both offered vivid pictures from the hospital in Maaret al-Numan and Khan Shaykhun. Omar Haj Kadour’s Twitter account shows he is decidedly on the side of the opposition. The account by the stringer al-Bakour seems utterly sincere. He says, “My job is to take pictures. To cover this attack. To show this horrendous crime to the world.”
Neither of the AFP reporters confirms who used these weapons on the civilians, many of them young children. They merely document the act. They are not experts. Their evidence includes foam at the mouth of one of the victims and the smell (“The first thing that hits you is the smell”). Most nerve agents are odorless. The photographers describe what they experience. To analyze their information would take a great deal more time on the ground. The others quoted by BBC do not hesitate. They point their fingers at Assad. Those with the densest relationship to the armed opposition are the first to claim that this attack was done by the government.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which had previously worked in Syria to destroy all banned chemical weapons, now says it will investigate the attack in Khan Shaykhun. The OPCW has announced that the Fact Finding Mission (FFM) is already in “the process of gathering and analysing information from all available sources.” The FFM has had a very controversial history since its establishment on April 29, 2014.
Scholars Karim Makdisi and Coralie Pison Hindawai have authored an important study of the U.N. role in the investigation of chemical weapons in Syria. In this study, they write that the FFM was from its inception seen by many well-regarded people in the U.N. as “highly political.”
That the FFM was sent into Syria, led by Malik Ellahi, to find out about chlorine use was itself a problem, Makdisi and Hindawai write, since “investigating allegations of use [of chlorine] would prove extremely challenging at best, and the actual use almost impossible to establish scientifically.” The FFM’s work was criticized for lacking in professionalism and for its methodology.
At any rate, the main point here was that the West seemed to want to push these investigations, knowing full well the difficulty involved in ascertaining use of chlorine, in order to create a narrative of chemical weapons use. The FFM’s reports became the basis for the U.N. Security Council Resolutions 2209 (2015) and 2235 (2015), both of which threated Syria with Chapter VII (armed) action by member states of the UN.
During the debate on UNSC resolution 2235 in August 2015, the Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin voted for the resolution. However, Churkin raised the “question of who had used chemical weapons.” He hoped an investigation would keep these questions alive and not begin with the assumption that the government had used these weapons. The Russian military intervened in Syria the next month. Between August 2015 and April 2017, with the Russian forces in Syria, there has been no serious allegation of chemical weapons use against the government.
Syria’s ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Ja’afari, said at the August 2015 meeting that his country had “warned the Council of the danger of chemical weapons use by terrorist groups, some of which were affiliated with al-Qaeda.” He pointed his finger at the Khan al-Assal incident of July 2013, which was not taken seriously in the West. SOHR posted a video which showed Syrian soldiers on the ground, as if gassed. Both the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Ansar al-Khalifa brigade had conducted this attack. No investigation was held.
In June 2016, in eastern Ghouta, the Syrian army said its soldiers had been hit with toxic gas. The Saudi proxy in the area, Jaish al-Islam, denied the use of any chemical weapons. But video evidence suggested that there was some kind of atmospheric weapon used against the soldiers.
Russia and the Syrian government now suggest that there was perhaps a stockpile of such weapons in Khan Shaykhun, which combusted perhaps by a Syrian Air Force strike. There is no confirmed evidence of any such warehouse, although the Russian Defense Ministry says that this information is “fully objective and verified.” Whether aerial bombardment can have this effect on gas housed in a warehouse will need to be investigated.
The Politics of the Moment
The Syrian armed opposition was disheartened at the Geneva V talks. The Syrian Army and its Russian and Iranian allies have made gains across the country. The armed opposition’s political leadership in Geneva openly called for U.S. intervention to help them. They feel utterly isolated.
A few days later, the administration of Donald Trump said plainly what had been clear since the Russian intervention of September 2015: that regime change in Damascus was off the table. This had been the policy of the Obama administration for the past two years, but it did not directly say so. Trump’s people acknowledged reality: with Russia and Iran in the picture, removal of Assad would take a fierce international conflict far greater than the tragedy that has befallen Syria.
With Turkey now drifting toward the Russian-Iranian narrative and Jordan dragged into chaos by the refugee crisis, easy borders to resupply the rebels are no longer available. The defeat of the armed opposition, including the al-Qaeda proxies and others, in Aleppo was the greatest blow.
For the Syrian government at this time to use chemical weapons in such a public way would not only be foolhardy, it would invite a U.S. attack. It seems only an utterly arrogant and blind leadership in Damascus would have committed such a crime. But the leadership in Damascus has shown it is crafty, using openings of all kinds to ensure its survival. This is not to say it would not have necessarily done such an attack. Eagerness to end the war before it can impose a political settlement on the rebels could have led to the use of such weapons. But this is not considered likely.
Over half a million Syrians are dead. Half the population is displaced. There is sadness across Syria, from one side of the firing line to another. Aerial bombardment by the Americans, the Russians, the Syrians and others continues to devastate Syria and Iraq. The Americans recently admitted to a major atrocity in Mosul, where 200 civilians have been killed. That attack did not seize the Security Council or bring forth fulminations from the Western press. Hypocrisy is central to the morals at the Security Council. This does not mean one should not be horrified by what has happened at Khan Shaykhun.
But more than anything, the international community must urge a thorough investigation of these events before rushing either to a forensic judgment about what happened and to a response—particularly a military response—in retaliation. Sober heads need to prevail. War is rarely the answer. Particularly when we don’t as yet know the question.
There is also an internal dispute over the intelligence. On Thursday night, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. intelligence community assessed with a “high degree of confidence” that the Syrian government had dropped a poison gas bomb on civilians in Idlib province.
But a number of intelligence sources have made contradictory assessments, saying the preponderance of evidence suggests that Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels were at fault, either by orchestrating an intentional release of a chemical agent as a provocation or by possessing containers of poison gas that ruptured during a conventional bombing raid.
One intelligence source told me that the most likely scenario was a staged event by the rebels intended to force Trump to reverse a policy, announced only days earlier, that the U.S. government would no longer seek “regime change” in Syria and would focus on attacking the common enemy, Islamic terror groups that represent the core of the rebel forces.
The source said the Trump national security team split between the President’s close personal advisers, such as nationalist firebrand Steve Bannon and son-in-law Jared Kushner, on one side and old-line neocons who have regrouped under National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, an Army general who was a protégé of neocon favorite Gen. David Petraeus.
White House Infighting
In this telling, the earlier ouster of retired Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser and this week’s removal of Bannon from the National Security Council were key steps in the reassertion of neocon influence inside the Trump presidency. The strange personalities and ideological extremism of Flynn and Bannon made their ousters easier, but they were obstacles that the neocons wanted removed.
Though Bannon and Kushner are often presented as rivals, the source said, they shared the belief that Trump should tell the truth about Syria, revealing the Obama administration’s CIA analysis that a fatal sarin gas attack in 2013 was a “false-flag” operation intended to sucker President Obama into fully joining the Syrian war on the side of the rebels — and the intelligence analysts’ similar beliefs about Tuesday’s incident.
Instead, Trump went along with the idea of embracing the initial rush to judgment blaming Assad for the Idlib poison-gas event. The source added that Trump saw Thursday night’s missile assault as a way to change the conversation in Washington, where his administration has been under fierce attack from Democrats claiming that his election resulted from a Russian covert operation.
If changing the narrative was Trump’s goal, it achieved some initial success with several of Trump’s fiercest neocon critics, such as neocon Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, praising the missile strike, as did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The neocons and Israel have long sought “regime change” in Damascus even if the ouster of Assad might lead to a victory by Islamic extremists associated with Al Qaeda and/or the Islamic State.
And, of course, most of the corporate media and politicians from both parties are bobbing their heads up and down in agreement (aside from some procedural quibbles), with news anchor Brian Williams of MSNBC describing American bombs flying into the air and hitting their targets as “beautiful” several times in what has to be one of the more vomit-inducing moments in recent memory and a new low for the corporate media. So much for objectivity.
2. Democrats’ jingoistic rhetoric has left them no ability – or desire – to oppose Trump’s wars.
Democrats have spent months wrapping themselves in extremely nationalistic and militaristic rhetoric. They have constantly accused Trump of being a traitor to the U.S., a puppet of Putin, and unwilling to defend U.S. interests. They have specifically tried to exploit Assad’s crimes by tying the Syrian leader to Trump, insisting that Trump would never confront Assad because doing so would anger his Kremlin masters. They have embraced a framework whereby anyone who refuses to confront Putin or Assad is deemed a sympathizer of, or a servant to, foreign enemies.
Having pushed those tactics and themes, Democrats have painted themselves into a corner. How could they possibly do anything but cheer as Trump bombs Syria? They can’t. And cheering is thus exactly what they’re doing.
For months, those of us who have urged skepticism and restraint on the Russia rhetoric have highlighted the risk that this fixation on depicting him as a tool of the Kremlin could goad Trump – dare him or even force him – to seek confrontation with Moscow. Some Democrats reacted with rage yesterday at the suggestion that their political tactics were now bearing this fruit, but that’s how politics works.
Much as George H.W. Bush was motivated to shed his “wimp” image by invading Panama, of course Trump will be motivated to prove he’s not controlled by Putin via blackmail by seeking confrontation with the Russian leader. And that’s exactly what he just did. War is the classic weapon U.S. Presidents use to show they are strong, patriotic and deserving of respect; the more those attributes are called in question, the greater that compulsion becomes:
Trump is the prime author of his wars, and of this bombing in Syria. He, and he alone, bears primary responsibility for it. But Trump is not an island of agency; he operates in the climate of Washington. A major reason why it’s so dangerous to ratchet up rhetorical tension between two major nuclear-armed powers is because of the ease with which those tensions can translate into actual conflict, and the motivation it can create for Trump to use war to prove he’s a patriot after all.
Whatever else is true, Democrats – with very few exceptions such as Rep. Ted Lieu and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard – have refrained from criticizing Trump’s bombing campaign on the merits (as opposed to process issues). Indeed, Democratic Party leaders have explicitly praised Trump’s bombing. They will have to continue to do so even if Trump expands this war. That’s what the Democratic Party has turned itself into to; indeed, it’s what it has been for a long time.
3. In wartime, US television instantly converts into state media.
As it always does, the U.S. media last night was an almost equal mix of excitement and reverence as the bombs fell. People who dissent from this bombing campaign – who opposed it on the merits – were almost entirely disappeared, as they always are in such moments of high patriotism (MSNBC’s Chris Hayes had two guests on after midnight who opposed it, but they were rare). Claims from the U.S. government and military are immediately vested with unquestioned truth and accuracy, while claims from foreign adversaries such as Russia and Syria are reflexively scorned as lies and propaganda.
For all the recent hysteria over RT being a propaganda outlet for the state, U.S. media coverage is barely distinguishable in times of war (which is, for the U.S., the permanent state of affairs). More systematic analysis will surely be forthcoming of last night’s coverage, but for now, here is Brian Williams – in all of his military-revering majesty – showing how state TV functions in the United States:
And here’s Fareed Zakaria declaring on CNN that Donald Trump has now been instantly transformed into the President of the United States in all of the loftiest and most regal senses of the term:
4. Trump’s bombing is illegal, but presidents are now omnipotent.
It should be startling and infuriating that Trump is able to order a new attack on the Syrian Government without any democratic debate, let alone Congressional approval. At least when Obama started bombing Syria without Congress, he had the excuse that it was authorized by the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force, since his ostensible targets were terrorist groups (even though ISIS did not exist until years after that was enacted and is hardly “affiliated” with Al Qaeda). But since there’s no self-defense pretext to what Trump just did, what possible legal rationale exists for this? None.
But nobody in Washington really cares about such legalities. Indeed, we have purposely created an omnipotent presidency. Recall that in 2011, Obama went to war in Libya not just without Congressional approval, but even after Congress rejected such authorization.
What happened to Obama as a result of involving the U.S in a war that Congress had rejected? Absolutely nothing, because Congress, due to political cowardice, wants to abdicate war-making powers to the President. As a country, we have decided we want an all-powerful president – one who can bomb, and spy, and detain, and invade with virtually no limits. That’s the machinery of the imperial presidency that both parties have jointly built and have now handed to President Trump.
Indeed, in 2013, Obama explicitly argued that he had the right to bomb Assad without Congressional approval – a precedent the Trump White House will now use.
At no point in its reporting does the BBC ever express any skepticism that maybe their ‘activist’ sources could be providing false or misleading information. Ultimately, these reports can be used to trigger renewed calls by Western officials for military strikes against the ‘Syrian Regime’ – which was exactly what happened today after these news stories were circulated. Within a few hours after these reports circulated, Congressman Adam Kinzinger (R, Illinois) came on CNN with Wolf Blitzer who asked Kinzinger point blank: What can be done to remove this regime? Kinzinger then replied by calling outright for US airstrikes to “Take out the Assad Regime in Syria”, including “cratering their airstrips so no planes can take off” and creating a “No Fly Zone” over Syria.
These statements, as bombastic as they may sound, are serious and should not be taken casually. The problem is they are based on a series of lies. Of course, Kinzinger was followed on-air by John McCain protesting against US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent comments this week that, “The Syrian people should be able to choose their own (political) future” – effectively holding the overwhelming majority of Syrian in contempt for supporting their government.
CNN Senior Middle East correspondent Arwa Damon also chimed in with Blitzer from New York, and without any real evidence presented as to what has happened and who is to blame, she swiftly concluded that the Idlib “chemical attack” was the work of ‘the regime’ and that America cannot stand back idly and do nothing, and how this would show a “lack of humanity,”