Trump’s (in)humanitarian intervention

April 10, 2017

Ashley Smith analyzes the situation in Syria and beyond after the U.S. missile strike.

DONALD TRUMP is cloaking his order for a U.S. missile strike against the Shayrat Syrian Arab Air Force base in Syria in the mantle of humanitarianism.

He claims the Tomahawk Cruise missile attack is to punish the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, which days before used the base to launch a sarin gas attack on the village of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, killing 80 civilians, almost half of them children.

Trump denounced the regime for choking out "the lives of innocent men, women and children...No child of God should ever suffer such horror."

No one should fall for this cynical charade.

Trump's missile attack had two main aims, neither of which have anything to do with the liberation of the Syrian people from Assad's dictatorship and the regime's counterrevolutionary war that has laid waste to the country.

Trump hopes to use this demonstration of American hard power to whip up domestic support for an administration dragged down by incompetence, internal divisions and growing unpopularity. He also hopes to send a message to America's rivals that his regime is prepared to turn to brute force in pursuit of imperial aims in the Middle East and throughout the world, no matter the consequences.

Donald Trump

IT'S HARD to take Trump's humanitarian pretensions seriously. His actual practice proves he views Syrians and their struggle for liberation with contempt.

Up until last week, Trump supported some kind of rapprochement with Assad and Russia--the dictator's most important international supporter--so the U.S. could pursue a single-minded focus on defeating the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS).

A few days prior to the air strike, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, stated that the U.S. would no longer seek the removal of Assad from power. The administration thus made explicit what had been implicit under Barack Obama--that the U.S. would tolerate Assad staying on in power as a de facto ally for the sake of the war on ISIS.

The U.S. thus proved itself no ally of the Syrian Revolution. It has turned a blind eye while Russia, Iran and Hezbollah intervened in support of Assad's counterrevolutionary war to save his dictatorship.

The regime and its international supporters are responsible for the vast majority of the 400,000 deaths during the conflict. They have displaced 11 million people from their homes--5 million of those have left the country as refugees, mainly in the region, but also in Europe and throughout the world.

Far from caring about the "innocent men, women and children," Trump demonstrated his racist and Islmophobic hatred of these refugees from his first days in office when he tried to ban their entry into the country, insinuating that the refugees were infiltrated by ISIS supporters and were therefore a terrorist threat.

Trump's continuation of the so-called "war on terror" also exemplifies his lack of concern for civilian life. His bombing campaigns in Syria, Iraq and Yemen caused the deaths of well over 1,000 people in just March alone.

Trump's atrocities have been mounting by the day. U.S. warplanes blew up a mosque in the Syrian town of al-Jinnah on March 16, killing 60 people. At around the same time, an attack on the ISIS-occupied city of Mosul in Iraq killed over 200 civilians. The Washington Post called it one of the worst U.S.-led civilian bombings in 25 years.

This is the reality of "humanitarian" intervention by the U.S. war machine--and lies and war crimes are not limited to Trump. The U.S. empire has never intervened anywhere in the world for humanitarian purposes.

From Vietnam to Iraq, the U.S. has always used various lies to cover its real goals of pursuing economic and geopolitical interests--in opposition to imperial rivals, states the disobey Washington's edicts, and revolutionary risings that endanger its dominance.

ALL OF this should show that Trump's attack has nothing to do with humanitarianism.

The U.S. has been perfectly willing to stand by as Assad uses conventional weapons to slaughter large numbers of people. But both the Obama and Trump administrations viewed the use of sarin gas, a weapon of mass destruction, as a "red line." The gas attack was in violation of an agreement struck between the U.S. and Russia in 2013 after the regime's last major use of chemical weapons in Ghouta.

No one should be surprised by Assad's willingness to violate the agreement and use chemical weapons. Any regime that shoots down nonviolent protesters, jails and tortures activists, drops barrel bombs on civilians, blows up hospitals and schools, and imposes medieval-style sieges on towns and villages will be happy to use weapons of mass destruction if it can get away with it.

In this case, Assad mistakenly took the words of Tillerson and other administration officials about not seeking his ouster as a green light to use any means to go after the last holdouts of the jihadist-dominated opposition in Idlib.

Hassan Hassan, writing at the Guardian website, quoted Syrians speculating that the use of sarin gas was calculated to provoke a U.S. response that would force Russia to defend the regime more fervently--which is exactly what happened.

LET'S BE clear: The U.S. is not committed to ridding the world of weapons of mass destruction. Let's remember that the U.S. has the world's largest arsenal of nuclear arms. And it only destroyed its chemical weapons stockpile in 2015--though it still maintains a facility for research and development of these weapons called the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense.

The U.S. has certainly been willing to use these weapons of mass destruction itself and to tolerate their use by its allies.

It remains the only nation on earth to have dropped atomic bombs in wartime when it incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan at the end of the Second World War. It used the chemical defoliant Agent Orange to ravage Vietnam. During its occupation of Iraq, it dropped white phosphorous on Fallujah as part of its counterinsurgency against the Iraqi resistance.

Trump's real concern about Syria is to protect the U.S. and Israeli monopoly on the weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. It wants to prevent any other state from acquiring nuclear and chemical weapons, which could the balance of mass terror in the region which they currently preside over.

At the same time, Trump's first strike against Assad was limited. And at least for now, the U.S. is committed to first winning the ongoing war on ISIS. The missile strike was designed to send a message to both Assad and Russia without getting into a protracted conflict with either.

Trump even warned Russian forces in advance of the air strike, giving both them and the Syrian regime they no doubt informed time to evacuate personnel from the base. The U.S. only attacked the one base and didn't even blow up its runway. As a result, Assad has been able to replenish his base with other planes and use it to launch yet more bombing runs in Idlib.

What happens next is as hard to predict as Trump himself, who is prone to wild mood swings in tweets and policy. And Trump's foreign policy team, if you can call it that, is saying completely contradictory things.

Tillerson initially declared that the U.S. was changing its strategy toward Assad as one of "regime change," to be pursued after the defeat of ISIS. He has since retreated from that, stating that no one should "extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today. There has been no change in that status."

But Trump's UN ambassador Nikki Haley, who is aligned with Republican hawks like Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, announced on Sunday that the U.S. was committed to regime change after the defeat of ISIS. "There's not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime," she said. "Regime change is something that we think is going to happen."

TRUMP CLEARLY succeeded with his cynical political calculations of the effect of an air strike. Like so many American presidents before him, he turned to military action to unite the ruling establishment behind him, win over the corporate media and improve his approval ratings.

His administration has been stumbling through one self-inflicted crisis after another, caught in a faction fight between the "alt-right" wing led by senior aide and former Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon and the more establishment wing represented by figures like Tillerson.

Divisions within the Republican Party and even the White House were the main reason Trump was unable to deliver on his signal promise to "repeal and replace" Obamacare. On top of that, Trump has been greeted by mass resistance from his very first day in office. The combination of all of this drove his approval rating down to 35 percent, one of the lowest of any president in history at this point in their first term.

The air strike is a naked attempt to set the administration on a different course.

Plus, Trump is also using the attack to try to bring an end to Russia-gate. While the resistance has opposed Trump across the board, Democrats, with a few exceptions, have concentrated on charges that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia's strongman President Vladimir Putin to win the presidential election.

The consequence of this narrow focus is that when Trump ordered a missile strike against Russia's ally Assad, risking an open break with Putin, the Democrats were neutralized.

ALMOST OVERNIGHT, Democrats, along with dissident Republicans and the corporate media, abandoned their various complaints about Trump and instead sung his praises.

John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Trump's two principal critics from the Republican establishment, applauded his "leadership" in a moment of crisis.

Almost the entire Democratic Party lined up as well, proving once again that American imperialism is a bipartisan project. Just before the attack on the Syrian base, Hillary Clinton anticipated the missile strike, calling for the U.S. to "take out his airfields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said, "Making sure Assad knows that when he commits such despicable atrocities he will pay a price is the right thing to do." John Kerry, Obama's Secretary of State and a former Democratic presidential nominee, declared that he was "absolutely supportive" of Trump's strike and was "gratified to see that it happened quickly."

Even Trump's harshest liberal opponents joined the chorus. Sen. Elizabeth Warren said in a statement: "The Syrian regime must be held accountable for this horrific act." She later made clear that she wants Trump to present a plan to accomplish this goal, but that is in reality a call for war, not opposition to it.

The only criticism some Democrats could manage was procedural--they complained that Trump should have presented his plan to hit Syrian military targets for Congressional approval. Even socialist firebrand Bernie Sanders did not directly oppose the assault, while warning against the U.S. getting drawn into another war in the Middle East.

Trump also got the corporate media to stand and salute him.

On CNN, Fareed Zakaria declared, "I think Donald Trump became president of the United States" last night.

Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting surveyed five major U.S. newspapers--The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Wall Street Journal and New York Daily News--and found they "offered no opinion space to anyone opposed to Donald Trump's Thursday night air strikes. By contrast, the five papers ran a total of 18 op-eds, columns or 'news analysis' articles (dressed-up opinion pieces) that either praised the strikes or criticized them for not being harsh enough."

But the most obscene celebration of Trump's militarism has to go to MSNBC's Brian Williams. While videos of Cruise missiles being launched showed on the screen, he gushed about "these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: 'I'm guided by the beauty of our weapons.' And they are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them a brief flight over to this airfield."

WITH THE political and media establishment behind them, at least for the moment, Trump and his administration hope to use the missile strike to begin to reassert U.S. imperial power. As one administration official stated, "This is bigger than Syria. It's representative of how he wants to be seen other world leaders. It is important that people understand that this is a different administration."

Trump has already put forward what one of his appointees called "a hard power budget," proposing a $54 billion increase in military spending to be paid for by massive cuts in other government program.

The attack in Syria shows his intention to deploy that hard power--and to declare that the U.S., not Russia, will be the central broker of the counterrevolutionary settlement to follow with the impending defeat of ISIS. No doubt Tillerson will communicate this message in no uncertain terms when he visits Russia this week.

The Trump administration is also putting China, America's main imperial rival, on notice. To underline the point, the attack took place during Trump's "golf course summit" with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort.

The two countries are negotiating about conflicts over everything from trade to currency valuation to North Korea. Trump no doubt hoped to use the attack in Syria to pressure China to lean on North Korea and bring an end to its nuclear missile program.

The U.S. got almost uniform support for the missile strike from its NATO allies, whether led by conservatives like Germany's Angela Merkel or liberals like Canada's Justin Trudeau. So did all the regimes that the U.S. backs in the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia to Israel.

By contrast, the missile strike provoked condemnation from regional opponents of the U.S. and international rivals Russia, China and North Korea, showing how the air strike could easily intensify geopolitical conflicts and trigger more war in the Middle East and Asia.

In response, Russia shut down the so-called "de-confliction hot line" that the U.S. and Russia established to inform one another about air strikes and bombing runs in Syria. This could lead to unintended skirmishes between Russian and U.S. jets even if they are going after targets in the war on ISIS.

Putin also promised to help Syria construct an air defense network against future U.S attacks. This would bring both Russia and Assad into more direct conflict against U.S. air power.

What will Assad do, now perhaps emboldened by the staunch backing from Russia? The regime could intensify its scorched-earth campaign to vanquish all opposition and impose its rule across Syria. What would the U.S. do in response? Would it react to more massacres if carried out with conventional weapons, as they mainly have been for six years?

Beyond the Middle East, the missile strike is also likely to intensify the U.S. conflict with China and North Korea.

North Korea's dictatorship built its nuclear weaponry to deter the U.S. from conducting regime change like it did in Iraq. It has repeatedly demonstrated its capacity to retaliate against U.S. attacks by firing test missiles over South Korea and Japan.

The U.S. has been escalating its pressure on the regime. Just recently, the U.S. deployed the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea to neutralize North Korean missiles. And the Trump administration has threatened to act alone if China fails to get its ally to abandon its nuclear program. Last month, Tillerson threatened that all options are on the table, including military strikes.

The North Korean regime will no doubt view the U.S. missile strike in Syria a precedent for an attack against it. It is easy to imagine this situation spiraling into a conflict not only involving North and South Korea, but the U.S. and China as well as other regional powers like Japan.

THE U.S. air strike in Syria thus threatens even greater and more destructive war in several theaters around the world. It is therefore essential that the mass opposition to Trump, which has so far mainly involved resistance against his domestic policies, adopt a clear antiwar position.

At the same time, we should oppose other imperial powers like Russia and all the regional powers from Iran to Saudi Arabia. All have played a counterrevolutionary role in the country, either supporting the regime's war on its people or backing reactionary Islamic fundamentalists who waged war on both the government and rival secular sections of the anti-Assad rebellion.

Opposing the interventions of the U.S. and other powers should not be confused with support for Assad's regime. We must stand in solidarity with the Syrian people's right to self-determination and their struggle for liberation and democracy.

Perhaps most importantly, we should demand that the U.S. open its borders, welcome the Syrian refugees who Trump tried to ban, and provide them the services they need to rebuild their lives.

To do these things, our side must overcome two significant obstacles.

First, the Democratic Party can't be relied on to oppose war. The party's establishment has uniformly lined up behind Trump's attack on Syria, and it carried out the "war on terror" under the Obama administration. Both parties of capital, Republicans and the Democrats, however much they disagree on this or that tactical question, are united in the effort to assert U.S. imperial power in the world.

Second, the resistance must reject the arguments of those on the left who express support for Assad, Russia and Iran as some kind of anti-imperialist states. They are not. Russia is an imperialist power in its own right, however lesser compared to the U.S. So is China.

Any support for the Syrian state and its Russian sponsor would line up the resistance with their counterrevolutionary war on Syria. Such a stance is neither antiwar nor anti-imperialist.

Instead, we must build international solidarity in support of struggles for national liberation, like that of Palestine, as well as political and social revolution like the Arab Spring. Such solidarity across borders is the only solution to the spiraling conflicts between imperial and regional powers in our world today.

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