Muscle-Flexing in the Middle East for Humanitarian Concerns?

Jens van Gysel draws on last week’s analysis by dr. Andrew Gawthorpe of American missile strikes into Syria.

When the United States (US) military attacked the Syrian air force base of Al-Shayrat on April 6th, 2017, dr. Andrew Gawthorpe questioned whether this attack was a good idea. The main goal of the attack, in his view, was to send the Assad government the message that civilian casualties, especially those caused by the use of illegal chemical weapons, would not be taken lightly. He came to the conclusion that, despite his noble intentions of wanting to prevent the death of more innocent children, President Trump’s strategy towards the conflict was too volatile and unorganised to make a practical difference. While I do agree with the latter half of this conclusion, I would also like to present a more critical view of the intentions behind the attack.

US officials and spokespersons were unequivocal in their justification of the attack. It was presented as a direct reaction to an alleged chemical attack carried out by the Assad regime a few days earlier. Nevertheless, these circumstances seem very convenient from the point of view of the United States. While it is undeniable that the Syrian army has conducted chemical attacks in the past, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has ascertained that all chemical weapons in possession of the Assad regime were turned over to the Western Coalition by July 2014. Additionally, the incidents of chemical attacks in Syria reported since then have most likely been perpetrated by Islamic State militants.

Furthermore, at the time of the most recent chemical attacks, the Assad regime seemed to be on its way to emerge victorious from the civil war. In the months leading up to this incident they had regained control of several Damascus suburbs and the city of Palmyra amongst others. Given that Assad must have known that a new chemical attack would provoke the ire of the United States and its allies, this seems like a particularly foolish move, as argued by former US congressman Ron Paul. This is especially so since the attack did not appear to have a military target, and can thus hardly be said to have served a strategic purpose for Assad.

Furthermore, Russian intelligence agencies and the Syrian government claim that the chemicals were released by Syrian Army bombs hitting rebel weapon stocks. Although these sources are arguably questionable, it must be kept in mind that the other side of the story comes from a similarly questionable source. After all, US intelligence agencies have displayed deceptive tendencies in the past, when they were in the news for their ability to spy on the American people through cars and smart TVs. Previously, they have also been known to set up a worldwide torture regime and overthrew democratically elected governments across the world. All in all, while it is certainly not impossible that the chemical attacks of April 4th were conducted by Assad, perhaps the US intelligence agencies should not be trusted blindly on this point.

Additionally, the US government was very quick to scramble for the moral high ground by condemning Syrian chemical attacks in strong terms. In doing so, however, they quite conveniently overlook the fact that the US themselves have carried out chemical attacks only very recently. They admit, for example, to having used depleted uranium during the Iraq War in the city of Fallujah, where babies are born up to this day with defects that are the result of radioactive weapons. Beyond all reasoning, these weapons are not even considered illegal under international law.

Apart from using chemical weapons themselves, the United States have supplied a number of their top allies with them. Israel, for example, repeatedly used white phosphorus shells bought from the US over densely populated areas of Gaza. Saudi-Arabia as well has made use of US-manufactured white phosphorus, and has been known not to shy away from massacring civilians in Yemen. Nevertheless, the United States continue to stand by these allies. At the very least, it can be said that they apply double standards for what is acceptable in a war situation.

The US air strike on the Syrian government fits into the broader picture of an increasingly hawkish and aggressive foreign policy approach since Donald Trump’s ascent to power. Despite his anti-war rhetoric on the campaign trail, the traditional neo-conservative Republican foreign policy advisors seem to have caught his ear. It seems very coincidental that Donald “take the oil” Trump appointed ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, and mere months later authorised military strikes on Syria and Afghanistan, two oil-rich nations. Similarly, he appointed known warhawks such as James Mattis, Mike Pompeo and John Kelly to important positions just before loosening the rules of military engagement.

Rather than humanitarian concern, it seems like the wishes of the military-industrial complex are once again responsible for the American military muscle-flexing in the Middle East. The sudden wave of (hypocritical) moral outrage on the part of the US government quite conveniently serves their economic and geopolitical needs. The situation in Syria is in many ways similar to the one that led to the Iraq War almost fifteen years ago, including the fawning adoration received for the conflict from the mainstream media. Apparently, the US have not learned from their mistakes in the past.

Photo by U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos