Why does the U.S. president feel inclined to attack Bashar al-Assad’s forces only in the case of chemical attacks – as opposed to more frequent conventional bombings – and why do the lives of Syrian (but not Yemeni) children matter enough to warrant missile strikes?
It appears that President Trump does, in fact, have a softer side. The media-consumer-in-chief, we are told, was simply horrified a couple weeks ago by televised by images of Syrian children allegedly gassed by Assad forces. So much so, in fact, that he – and his French/UK counterparts – just had to launch over 100 missiles against various government targets, expanding the US role in Syria and risking a wider regional war with Russia or Iran.
Perhaps the public ought to take comfort in Mr. Trump’s display of empathy, but the incident – like so many other American one-off bombing attacks – raises more questions than answers, and demonstrates, once again, the staggering hypocrisy of US"strategy" in the region.
For starters, why does the manner of killing matter so much? There is no doubt that chemical attacks are monstrous and can potentially result in a most horrific, painful death for the victim. Still, it’s difficult to argue that there is any real moral or legal difference between killing civilians with Assad’s ubiquitous barrel bombs – tens of thousands of them dropped per year – or slaughtering innocents with chlorine or sarin gas. The outcome is the same: horrific deaths and shattered families.
Make no mistake: this author is not calling for escalation or regime-change in Syria. The risks are too high, American strategic interests are too flimsy, and intervening further in the whole byzantine conflict would undoubtedly draw the US military into just another quagmire, a veritable Syria trap. Rather, what interests me is the lack of consistency in US military responses and their effect on America’s image, and creditability, in the Mideast.
Suppose the president – and his bipartisan, militarist cheering squad in Congress – is right. Suppose the US military is strategically and morally justified to kinetically respond to the ghastly massacre of women and children the world over. That’s a strikingly tall order, even for the world’s self-touted military superpower, but nonetheless, let’s assume the logic is sound. Why, then, does the maxim only appear to apply west of the Euphrates River, in Syria, and when noxious chemicals are involved? In short, why do some lives matter (more than others)?
Last year, during the Iraqi-led liberation of Mosul from the so-called Islamic State, thousands of US airstrikes killed hundreds, if not thousands of local civilians. Those deaths, amid the rubble of Iraq’s second city, hardly made the headlines. Most Americans were ignorant of this – it was a non-story – and the rest hardly cared. Such is the cost of doing business. It was, one presumes, necessary to destroy Mosul in order to save it from Islamist radicals. Of course, with Douma and Eastern Ghouta (where the alleged chemical attacks last occurred) then under the control of rebel Islamist factions, couldn’t Assad – cynically, but not inaccurately – have made the same argument?
Sure, chemical weapons are banned under most international laws. Then again, so are the white phosphorous and cluster munitions the US military has used as a matter of course in the ongoing "war on terror."
By no means did the Syrian civilians in Douma deserve their grisly fate. Still, one wonders why the West – and President Trump – are up-in-arms about some 40 dead Syrians in a Damascus suburb, but ignore thousands of other civilian deaths unfolding daily in the Mideast region? Alleged chemical attacks that kill dozens are worthy of a swift military response, the daily demise of hundreds of other – Yemeni, Afghan, Libyan, or Palestinian – civilians warrant, apparently, a collective shrug of the shoulders.
International polls demonstrate, again and again, that many non-Westerners consider the United States as one of the greatest threats to world peace. That may, potentially, be an exaggeration; but, given US hyper-interventionism and obtuse hypocrisy in the Greater Middle East, the sentiment is comprehensible.
Compare the apparent American empathy for (certain) Syrian civilians with our indifference towards one other evocative group: Yemenis. At the southwest end of the Arabian Peninsula, U.S.-supplied munitions, in-flight refueling, and targeting intelligence enable horrific Saudi war crimes against this poorest of Arab countries. Saudi bombing and blockading has killed tens of thousands outright, ushered in a famine, and kicked off the worst cholera epidemic in recorded human history. Most of the victims are civilians.
One wonders why the shocking images of emaciated Yemeni babies don’t have the same effect on Mr. Trump as the photos and video of their Syrian counterparts. Could it be because the terror bombing of Yemen barely penetrates the Fox News universe? Or, that America’s inconvenient complicity in these civilian deaths might cause some international embarrassment?
Personally, I think it’s simpler than all that. Americans – both mainstream liberals and conservatives – inhabit distinct echo chambers and only possess the requisite empathy for one "cause" at a time. The world is far too complex to worry ourselves with multiple humanitarian crises, especially when the US government is easily implicated in a few of them.
The discomfiting truth is that the United States has no discernible strategy for Syria, let alone the Middle East writ large. Trump’s latest missile attacks will change nothing on the ground, just as his launch of 59 cruise missiles last year, and President Obama’s wavering equivocation, didn’t dissuade Assad’s continued brutality. Like a petulant child, the US lobs bombs at Assadist targets – just as it would if Hillary Clinton were president – in isolated, ineffective strikes because Washington is out of ideas. Trump, and his predecessors, stomp their feet and fire off millions of dollars’ worth of munitions out of the perceived need to do something. Meanwhile, the U.S. persists in enabling Saudi crimes against humanity in Yemen.
In the no-win Syria maelstrom and across the chaotic Middle East, that’s a formula for mission failure and strategic drift. It’s also wildly duplicitous, and, make no mistake, the Arab world takes notice.
It is long past time to do less in the region, disengage from anything but tangible threats to US national security, and halt all support for the ongoing war crimes of our purported allies. That means Congress must step up, vote on US military involvement in Yemen, Syria, and other ongoing conflicts, and restrict the executive branch’s perpetual penchant for ever expansive war.
President Trump was nearly brought to tears by the images of gassed Syrian children. He should be equally mortified by Yemeni starvation, and the deaths of countless other civilians under American and allied bombardment. A little consistency is in order.
Besides, if Washington has such humanitarian impulses then why not halt the bombing and instead grant an upsurge in aid funds or take in a few hundred thousand embattled Syrian refugees? That, of course, is highly unlikely given this administration’s predilection for closed borders and "Muslim bans." Open borders may or may not, ultimately, be the answer. Still, before Trump throws his next tantrum and flings cruise missiles at that "monster" Assad, policymakers ought to take a look in America’s mirror and ask whether all, or merely some, civilian lives matter.
Until then, the US will remain strategically unmoored in the region, and, its hypocrisy will know no bounds.
Danny Sjursen is a US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]
Copyright 2018 Danny Sjursen