On April 4, a gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, Syria killed at least seventy people, including twenty-seven children. Decisive proof of what happened is not yet available but it’s certainly possible that the Syrian government is responsible for the action.
In response, the United States launched fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Syrian Shayrat Air Base that they say was home to the warplanes that carried out the chemical attacks. Though American officials describe the attack on Shayrat as a “one-off,” just yesterday US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said steps are “underway” to remove Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from power. Considering that the Trump administration is now saying and doing such things when just a week earlier it said it accepts the “political reality” of Assad being in power and that their “priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” it’s impossible to say with any certainty what Washington will do next in Syria.
We are living in an incredibly dangerous moment. Russia denounced the American airstrikes and suspended communication with US forces designed to stop planes colliding over Syria. The possibility of a US-Russian confrontation in the near future cannot be dismissed, particularly because they are not only in conflict over Syria but also over Ukraine and provocative actions such as a March 8–31 NATO exercise in Germany and a four thousand person NATO force that is going to be dispersed in Latvia, Poland, Estonia, and Lithuania allegedly to deter Russian intervention in those countries.
Even if the United States and Russia do not have an overt war, US escalation in Syria can only add more chaos and bloodshed to an already war-ravaged country.
It could also make an inferno of the broader Middle East. The Syrian government and its Iranian ally denounced the American bombing of Shayrat. That attack can be understood in part as a salvo against Iran. If the US attacks the Syrian government again, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario wherein the Iranian and Syrian ally Hezbollah retaliates by striking Israel, which will then unleash mass violence on Lebanese and Palestinian people and perhaps Syrians and Iranians as well. While Iran’s ties to Houthi fighters in Yemen are overblown, a stated objective of the devastating US-Saudi destruction of Yemen is to minimize Iranian purchase in the country, so an intensified US war on Syria could mean further pain for Yemenis.
That a deepened US attack on Syria risks engulfing millions of people in horrific violence gives lie to the notion that bombing can be understood as a humanitarian effort, a narrative peddled at the New York Times, which ran an article claiming that Trump bombed the Syrian government because his heart swelled over the victims at Khan Sheikhun. Even if one wants to believe that Trump — the Islamophobic bigot and butcher of people in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen — aims to protect Syrians, and even if it turns out that the Syrian government carried out a chemical attack, the idea that the US should bomb Syria to save Syrians is untenable.
The entire notion of humanitarian intervention, whereby the US military and its partners protect people in the Global South from themselves, is pernicious. In reality, so-called humanitarian wars are barely concealed efforts to assert US domination of the countries they attack. Liberating women was a supposed justification for the 2001 US-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and the result has been a war that’s been going on for more than fifteen years that’s left thousands dead, and contributed to a refugee crisis, the formation of an Afghan ISIS outfit, and abysmal social indicators that cannot be described as anything like emancipation.
Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iran and against Iraqi Kurds, in both cases with American support. When the United States pretended that Hussein had to be ousted largely because he used chemical weapons, the US invaded Iraq and launched a war that gave birth to ISIS, sent millions fleeing from their homes, left upward of a million Iraqis dead, and only made sections of US capital richer.
In Libya in 2011, the violence that Muammar Gaddafi was carrying out against the civilian population was exaggerated, and under the guise of the “responsibility to protect” a US-led coalition bombed the country, blocked possible negotiated settlements to the conflict, overthrew the government, and empowered racist elements of the opposition. Because of what the US and its partners did, thousands of Libyans died, another refugee crisis emerged, and the country is now without a functioning government but does have an ISIS franchise, which Washington used as a pretext to drop still more bombs on Libya in 2016.
After American policies played a key role in creating an environment for ISIS to grow in Iraq and Syria, the US launched another imperialist venture in Iraq and Syria to supposedly “degrade and destroy” ISIS, funneling American workers’ tax dollars to US weapons makers and building military outposts along the way. This war has also been rationalized on humanitarian grounds. In this war, the US has used its own chemical weapons and has killed a minimum of 2,978 Iraqi and Syrian civilians.
Arguments in favor of the US bombing the Syrian government take one to ludicrous places. If the US should bomb the Syrian government as punishment for killing Syrian civilians, it follows that another state should bomb the US to punish it for killing Syrian civilians. If the Syrian government used chemical weapons against Syrians and that means the US and company ought to overthrow the Syrian government, then it will be necessary to assemble an international coalition to overthrow the US government in view of its use of chemical weapons against Syrians and Iraqis.
Fundamentally there are no “humanitarian” wars. There are only wars. And US wars are exercises in mass murder and violence against women. They are environmentally destructive and harmful to the working class. They rest on the idea that the impoverished people of color who are subjected to them are so primitive that they need to be rescued by an enlightened empire, despite the rich tradition of liberation movements in these parts of the world. They are barely concealed assertions of imperial domination, war profiteering, and stewardship of the global capitalist system.
Complexities abound in Syria. It has been, often simultaneously, a global proxy war, a regional proxy war, a popular uprising against a dictatorship, a sectarian war, and a civil war. The authoritarian Syrian government has killed and tortured thousands of people while the US and its Turkish and Gulf state allies have obstructed possible diplomatic solutions, levied sanctions that punish the Syrian population, and trained and armed antigovernment fighters, many of whom have committed war crimes against minorities.
What isn’t complex is that, to borrow a phrase from Soheil Asefi, stopping the crusading warmongers in the US and the countries it’s allied with from bombing other countries has to be a non-negotiable first principle of anyone on the Left.
What should be the response to these events? The answer for those who care about the fate of Syrians is the same as it has been to the ongoing violence previously, which is to push for a political settlement and an immediate cessation of violence coupled with humanitarian aid for Syrians.
The sole internationalist task of anyone who lives in the US or the states allied with it is to push the governments we are saddled with in these directions and away from participating in the obliteration of Syria.
Syrians have the right to decide who governs them and how. Arabs are entitled to self-determination and to sovereignty and to defend themselves from external aggression. An antiwar movement that understands these principles and acts accordingly is the only way to stop the ruling classes that afflict us and all of the peoples in their crosshairs.