By Stephen Bell
The bombing of a Syrian airfield by US President Trump represents a further escalation of the US military presence in the Middle East. It is immediately unclear whether this represents a one-off, or the start of a campaign against Syria. US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley said ‘We are prepared to do more, but we hope it will not be necessary’. The action was taken without UN authorisation, or US Congressional debate.
It was immediately presented as a response to President Assad’s alleged responsibility for the chemical dispersal at Khan Sheikhoun which killed 87 people. The Russian Foreign Ministry statement challenged this – ‘It is obvious that the cruise missile attack was prepared in advance. Any expert understands that Washington’s decision on air strikes predates the Idlib events which simply serve as a pretext for a show of force’.
Certainly President Trump has been seriously buffeted, pushing him away from his pre-election promises of a new relationship with Russia, and no new war on Syria. The US state apparatus appears to have registered a number of victories against Trump’s policy and team. Institutional hostility to the ‘pro-Russian’ line has led to the ousting of his first nominee for Defence Secretary, Michael Flynn. His Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has been forced to step aside from the investigation into pre-election contacts with the Russian Ambassador. His strongest ally on the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, has been forced to step aside from the inquiry on alleged Russian involvement in the Presidential election. And, his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who opposed the Syrian bombing, has been forced out of attending the National Security Council. The pressures upon Trump from the various campaigns about the Russian ‘threat’ or ‘link’ are pushing Trump into the previously established foreign policy consensus.
The incident itself is suspicious. The Russian and Syrian governments claim that dispersal was a result of air strikes destroying rebel stores of chemical weapons. The dominant force in the area is the Nusrah Front, the main al-Qaeda aligned force in Syria. According to US Defence Intelligence Agency documents obtained by Seymour Hersh in 2014, Nusrah used sarin in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August 2013. Earlier, in May 2013, Carla del Ponte, former war crimes prosecutor, found that the armed opposition had used chemical weapons, specifically sarin.
The elementary question is ‘Who profits?’ The Syrian and Russian alliance has been making sustained military progress against ISIS, Nusrah and their aligned militias. A section of the armed opposition has been drawn into the Russia/Turkey/Iran peace talks. On an international level, the Trump administration had recently stated that the removal of Assad was not a priority, as attested by statements from Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and Ambassador Haley. How does it benefit the Syrian and Russian governments to put all of that in the balance by using chemical weapons which have negligible battlefield value, and major political disadvantages?
Following the dispersal, and Trump’s missile attack, Tillerson has called for ‘a political process that would lead to Assad leaving’. Of course, the leadership of the Democrats endorsed the new intervention. John Kerry stated he was ‘gratified’ by the bombing, and cynically implied further action could produce a peace deal. Hillary Clinton issued a statement before the bombing calling for an attack upon Syrian airfields. Inside the administration there were reports of the action representing an alliance between H R McMaster, National Security advisor, and James Mattis, Defence Secretary, who are both hostile to Russia and more favourable to NATO.
In all this self-congratulation, there is little pause for thought for the victims of growing US belligerence. The action on the airfield resulted in nine civilians killed, including four children. The Russian estimate is that fewer than half of the Tomahawks fired reached the air base. On Saturday, US air strikes sunk a boat crossing the Euphrates at Shuaib al-Zeher. It was carrying civilians fleeing ISIS, and at least 21 people were killed, including a mother and her six children. On the same day, US air strikes in Hneida village killed at least 14 civilians including 4 children.
Western governments in supporting the attack are dismissing the Russian and Syrian governments call for an international investigation into the incident. Instead the Pentagon has announced an investigation to see whether Russian planes took part in the alleged gas attack. Tillerson said that Russia bears responsibility for the chemical weapons attack as ‘Russia has failed in its responsibility to deliver on the 2013 Chemical Weapons commitment. So either Russia has been complicit or incompetent’. As the US government declared the regime met its commitment on chemical weapons in 2014, then the current US government is either being cynical or incompetent. And, using its own measure for the Russian government, it too would be complicit.
In all this, the British government is acting as a nodding dog for US imperialism. It supported the attack, and Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has cancelled a visit to Russia this week. On Sunday, Minister of Defence, Michael Fallon provided the appropriate echo when he said ‘By proxy, Russia is responsible for every civilian death last week’. Generously, he continued, ‘If Russia wants to be absolved of responsibility for future attacks, Vladimir Putin needs to enforce commitments, to dismantle Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal for good, and to get fully engaged with the UN peacekeeping process’. This paves the way for a new hunt for non-existent ‘weapons of mass destruction’, this time in Syria. As the US strike was without UN authorisation, and against the UN support for the ceasefire in Syria, it is rich for Fallon to even refer to that organisation.
It is very welcome that Jeremy Corbyn has come out against the bombing and supports an independent investigation into the tragedy of Khan Sheikhoun. This has not been supported by those Labour MPs who have learnt nothing about the Middle East since 2003. Tom Watson, Hilary Benn, Michael Dughar, Angela Eagle, Patrick McFadden, Mary Creagh and Jacquie Smith have fallen over themselves to support Trump’s missiles. All of these people have been completely silent about the terrible toll in civilian lives in Syria and Iraq arising from the US stepping up its military action under Trump. Apparently, only some of the innocent victims are worth mentioning, and then only for the purpose of promoting more bloodshed.