Trump’s Unilateral Strikes in Syria Must Be Categorically Opposed

When it comes to Syrian civilians, Trump’s humanitarian rhetoric doesn’t match his destructive actions.

Stephen Zunes April 7, 2017

The United States has been bombing Syria since 2014. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel/Wikimedia Commons)

This arti­cle first appeared in The Pro­gres­sive.

It would not be too cynical to assume that the decision to bomb Syrian government positions was done for political reasons.

Let’s not pre­tend that Thurs­day night’s U.S. mis­sile strike on Syria’s Al Shayrat air base has any­thing to do with con­cern for the civil­ian vic­tims of the régime’s appar­ent April 3 chem­i­cal weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

The uni­lat­er­al mil­i­tary action was ordered by the same Pres­i­dent whose pro­posed bud­get would make major cuts to pro­grams that have pro­vid­ed relief to Syr­i­an refugees flee­ing the vio­lence of the régime and has tried to bar any of the refugees from enter­ing the Unit­ed States.

With no direct threat to U.S. nation­al secu­ri­ty and with no con­gres­sion­al autho­riza­tion, Trump’s use of force was ille­gal. By con­trast, when Pres­i­dent Oba­ma con­sid­ered autho­riz­ing mil­i­tary action against the régime fol­low­ing an even dead­lier sarin attack in 2013, he respect­ed con­sti­tu­tion­al lim­i­ta­tions on his pow­er and — fail­ing to receive autho­riza­tion from Con­gress — did not do so. This pro­vid­ed time for the Russ­ian-ini­ti­at­ed agree­ment, backed by the Unit­ed Nations, which led to the destruc­tion of the vast major­i­ty of Syria’s chem­i­cal weapons arsenal.

Trump recent­ly blamed Syria’s chem­i­cal attack on Oba­ma, but it was a Repub­li­can-con­trolled Con­gress, backed by pub­lic opin­ion, that blocked Oba­ma from tak­ing mil­i­tary action. Indeed, Trump at that time tweet­ed, The Pres­i­dent must get Con­gres­sion­al approval before attack­ing Syr­ia — big mis­take if he does not!” He also tweet­ed, Stay out of Syr­ia.” Obama’s hes­i­ta­tion, Trump lat­er tweet­ed, may have saved us from doing a hor­ri­ble and very cost­ly (in more ways than mon­ey) attack on Syria!”

There is lit­tle ques­tion that the Syr­i­an régime was respon­si­ble for the atroc­i­ty in Khan Sheikhoun: As with the 2013 Syr­i­an attack on the Dam­as­cus sub­urb Al-Ghou­ta, the tar­get of chem­i­cal attack was a rebel-held town on a road block­ing the Syr­i­an army from advanc­ing to con­sol­i­date areas of con­trol. Even if a rebel group had access to chem­i­cal weapons and want­ed to launch a false flag” oper­a­tion to dis­cred­it the régime and encour­age U.S. inter­ven­tion, it would have pre­sum­ably used them some­where with less strate­gic importance.

Sim­i­lar­ly, the Russ­ian claims that it was the bomb­ing of a rebel ware­house stor­ing chem­i­cal weapons which result­ed in the mass casu­al­ties doesn’t make sense, giv­en that the rebel groups con­trol­ling the town have nev­er used chem­i­cal weapons, and the like­ly nerve agent involved uses a bina­ry mix­ing process which makes the lethal chem­i­cal reac­tion that took place impos­si­ble under such circumstances.

But the Unit­ed States has no right to pun­ish Syr­ia. Yes, there is some­thing unique­ly hor­rif­ic about chem­i­cal weapons, the use of which has been banned since the Gene­va Pro­to­col of 1925, the pos­ses­sion of which has been ille­gal since the Chem­i­cal Weapons of 1993 (belat­ed­ly signed and rat­i­fied by Syr­ia in 2013.) But since Trump came to office, near­ly 1,000 civil­ians have been killed by U.S. airstrikes in Syr­ia and Iraq — includ­ing up to 200 civil­ians in Mosul and around six­ty civil­ians in the bomb­ing of a mosque in al-Jena (not far from the site of the chem­i­cal weapons attack) this past month.

These deaths raise seri­ous ques­tions as to whether Trump’s bomb­ing of the Syr­i­an base has any­thing to do with pro­tect­ing civil­ians. Wav­ing the flag of fight­ing ter­ror­ism, the Unit­ed States has been bomb­ing Syr­ia since 2014, con­duct­ing more than 8,000 air strikes against oppo­nents of Assad, and not only the so-called Islam­ic State,” result­ing in thou­sands of civil­ian casualties.

There is lit­tle rea­son to think that Trump’s lim­it­ed strikes will make much of a dif­fer­ence in terms of Assad’s behav­ior. The Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment has lost more than 150,000 sol­diers and mili­ti­a­men and count­less mil­i­tary assets, and the dam­age done by the 59 Tom­a­hawk mis­siles is unlike­ly to lead to any change in régime policy.

It would not be too cyn­i­cal to assume that the deci­sion to bomb Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment posi­tions was done for polit­i­cal rea­sons: to dis­tract from the dan­ger­ous deci­sion ear­li­er that day to force through the con­fir­ma­tion of the right-wing Judge Neil Gor­such with­out the long­stand­ing prac­tice of requir­ing a three-fifths major­i­ty of the Sen­ate, for exam­ple. This mis­sile attack may also serve to dis­tance the Trump admin­is­tra­tion from the Krem­lin — a key sup­port­er of the Assad régime — in the face of grow­ing evi­dence of Russ­ian inter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion. As Andy Borowitz observed, Cruise mis­siles are spe­cial­ly designed to dis­tract the media with pin­point accuracy.”

The man­i­fold war crimes of the Assad régime, includ­ing this lat­est atroc­i­ty, should not be denied or min­i­mized. How­ev­er, uni­lat­er­al mil­i­tary action is ille­gal, uncon­sti­tu­tion­al, and almost cer­tain­ly coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. It must be cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly opposed.

Stephen Zunes is a pro­fes­sor of Pol­i­tics and Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of San Fran­cis­co. Read more of his work at stephen​zunes​.org.
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