Syria strategy needs more than feel-good war action
The Tomahawk cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base made for great TV. How much it will help the people of Syria is a whole separate question.
For the $80 million to $100 million that the attack cost U.S. taxpayers, the unfortunate answer is likely, “not at all.”
No matter how much TV talking heads swoon over a missile attack, no matter how much lawmakers in Washington beat their chests to show that, by God, we’re doing something at last, a one-off airstrike leaves civil war-torn Syria in the same mess it was in before. And Donald Trump doesn’t have any better idea how to solve it than he did one week ago.
Even though officials in the Trump administration had basically been washing their hands of the whole Syria problem, and even through Trump ran almost an isolationist campaign when it came to foreign policy, he was ready to jump in when he saw it could work to his advantage. This is despite saying the opposite four years earlier when President Barack Obama faced the same situation after a chemical weapons attack.
The images of those killed and injured in the chemical weapons attack that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched against his own citizens were horrifying. Trump, claiming that he had been moved by those images, ordered a military action on the air base near Homs that launched the attack.
The 59 cruise missiles that hit the airfield didn’t render it inoperable. Syrian planes launched new attacks from the very same base the next day. Said a story in The Washington Post:
Although American officials predicted that the strikes would result in a major shift of Assad’s calculus, they appeared to be symbolic in practice. Within 24 hours of the attack, monitoring groups reported that jets were taking off from the bombed Shayrat air base once again, this time to bomb Islamic State positions. …
“The American strikes did nothing for us. They can still commit massacres at anytime,” said Majed Khattab, speaking by phone from Khan Sheikhoun [the town hit by the chemical attack]. “No one here can sleep properly, people are really afraid.”
The Trump administration warned Russia about the upcoming missile strikes, which in turn warned Syria, so personnel could leave the area. As it was, six people were killed. Still, so much for an effective surprise attack.
What of the media? Television pundits embarrassed themselves by gushing how “presidential” it was of Donald Trump to order a strike. NBC’s Brian Williams drew criticism from across the board by describing the U.S. attack as “beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments.” Journalists who a week earlier were correctly calling out Trump’s lies and demanding further investigation into the ties between Russia and Trumpland now fell over each other in praise of Trump, saying “his heart came first” (New York Times) or that he “became president last night” (Fareed Zakaria, CNN). According to Margaret Sullivan’s media column in The Washington Post:
“There is no faster way to bring public support than to pursue military action,” said Ken Paulson, head of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center.
“It’s a pattern not only in American history, but in world history. We rally around the commander in chief — and that’s understandable.”
Paulson noted that the news media also “seem to get bored with their own narrative” about Trump’s failings, and they welcome a chance to switch it up.
But that’s not good enough, he said: “The watchdog has to have clear vision and not just a sporadic bark.”
Washington lawmakers were no better. Four years ago, Obama sought congressional approval for an airstrike after Assad launched a chemical weapons attack. The same Republican congressmen and senators who are tripping over each other to get in front of a camera to praise Trump’s move were against such action four years ago. They wouldn’t even bring it up for a vote. Because then they would have been on record of supporting a war action to a war-weary American populace. Four years ago they were criticizing Obama for even thinking that the U.S. should get involved in the Syrian Civil War. Now they’re singing “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.”
There’s a good reason Obama was so reluctant to get drawn into Syria, suggests a piece on Huffington Post.
Even if the Assad regime stops using chemical weapons, it will continue to pummel civilians with barrel bombs, predicted Ilan Goldenberg, a former State Department official during the Obama administration. “You’ll see many more pictures of ‘beautiful [Syrian] babies’ [dying] on TV ― specifically to humiliate the United States and show the fecklessness of military action,” he said.
“What will the United States do? Will it get drawn in the way it did in Libya where we started with a civilian protection operation and ended up with a regime change operation?” Goldenberg continued. “This is the biggest danger, and I think this was Obama’s biggest concern.”
And what of the Trump administration’s attitude toward Syrian refugees? After all, the people who were killed and injured in the chemical weapons attack are the same kinds of people seeking to flee a war-torn nation for refuge in another country. It would be more humane (not to mention a hell of a lot cheaper) to accept refugees after their stringent vetting process than it would to keep firing missiles.
Juan Cole, University of Michigan history professor and one of the nation’s leading experts on the Middle East, asks the same question.
If Trump and his circle are so tenderhearted, why did they propose, on taking office, permanently banning Syrian refugees from the United States? … Why is how children are killed in war more important than that they are killed? The most conservative estimate for deaths in the Syrian Civil War is some 300,000, and you figure that although many of those are fighting men, some large proportion (33%?) are innocent noncombatants, including tens of thousands of children. Rebel groups have also killed tens of thousands of people, including innocent civilians, though the regime has been more deadly because they are better-armed. Why was it all right for the regime to use indiscriminate bombing and barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods, but if they kill some 80 people with gas all of a sudden the Beltway Bandits want to Send in Trump?
Syria is in a civil war with “a domestic, a regional, and an international dimension,” as Cole puts it. Was the one-off airstrike decision a “Wag the Dog” type of distraction to draw attention away from the Trump-Russia connection investigations? Is Trump being manipulated by Putin to get involved in Syria? Will the war-loving Washington political establishment back further involvement, even without the constitutionally mandated approval by Congress?
Whatever the answers to those questions, the situation calls for more serious understanding and a more thorough approach than it’s getting from the Trump administration right now.