What Really Happened in Syria?
“Assad had an air force, and that air force is the cause of most of the civilian deaths, as we have seen over the years and as we saw again in the last few days. And I really believe that we should have and still should take out his airfields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop Sarin gas on them.”
— Hillary Clinton at the Women in the World summit April 6, 2017
What happened at dawn in the “rebel-held” town of Khan Sheikhun in northwest Syria on April 4 remains in dispute, with little reliable evidence to support any version of events. Apparently indisputable is that whatever happened killed perhaps as many as 100 people and caused severe suffering to many more in a community of about 48,000, and that carnage was the result of chemical weapons dispersed by an airstrike.
From there the versions of events diverge, usually according to the teller’s self-interests. Even the meaning of “rebel-held” is uncertain. As Deutsche Welle reported April 4: “Idlib province, where Khan Sheikhun is located, is mostly controlled by the Tahrir al-Sham alliance, which is dominated by the Fateh al-Sham Front, formerly known as the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front.”
Let us stipulate, for the sake of maintaining focus, that the official Western version of the event is correct, and that it occurred very soon after the U.S. government had announced that regime change in Syria was no longer a goal. Both the U.S. secretary of state and the UN ambassador publicly said that it was no longer U.S. policy to remove Syrian president Bashar al Assad as a precondition to a cease-fire. By what logic, then, does the Syrian air force launch a startling and deliberately provocative chemical weapons attack that could not go undetected and would surely push human rights buttons around the world? All but inexplicable, but it is the official version and it seems to be widely accepted with little serious skepticism.
Whatever really happened in Syria, the event has sparked a spasm of political response rooted more in emotion than anything resembling reality. On April 5, for example, President Trump responded ungrammatically, semi-coherently, maudlinly, and without any apparent need to know what actually happened:
“It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal—people were shocked to hear what gas it was—that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line. Many, many lines.”
President Trump is not known for having great concern for any babies, much less dead babies killed with U.S. participation in Mosul or all across Yemen (where the U.S. helps starve children as well). But it’s nice that he can express the sentiment now, however insincerely and unconvincingly. He could have used the opportunity to offer humanitarian aid or to allow more Syrian babies into the U.S. But, like the good con he is, he moved without a beat to the snide “red line” reference that alludes to President Obama struggling with another Syrian attack in 2013, a time when Trump pleaded by tweet with the President not to bomb Syria: “President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save our ‘powder’ for another (and more important) day!” The 2013 chemical weapons event in the Ghouta district of Damascus is widely misused these days to prove one point or its opposite, so it’s useful to remember what’s real about it. More than 1,400 people were killed in a rebel-held area. To this day there is no certainty as to who did it. President Obama indicated he favored a military response, but did not act impulsively. Public opposition (including Trump’s) to U.S. military escalation in Syria grew, followed by Congressional opposition when the president sought authorization for the use of military force.
Before Congress acted, the Russians brokered a deal under which Syria would give up its chemical weapons under international supervision (the deal did not include chlorine). Within a year a substantial amount of Syria’s chemical weapons had been destroyed, with no way to know if everything was gone.
There was no inspection regime or other means to prevent Syria from redeveloping chemical weapons. According to the United Nations, the Syrian government, rebel groups, and ISIS all have used chemical weapons on multiple occasions since 2014, almost always without provoking international notice. Likewise, the U.S. has been using chemical weapons in the region for decades, also without provoking much notice. The U.S. chemical weapon of preference is depleted uranium (DU), which lacks the ability to create dramatic video of dying and dead babies, but does manage to leave a radioactive residue that promotes childbirth deformities and cancer in all ages for generations. The U.S. continues to use DU weapons in the region, at least in attacks on ISIS. Tomahawk missiles, a Raytheon profit center, have long been suspected of delivering a DU payload. So President Trump’s loosing of 59 Tomahawk missiles on Al Shayrat Airfield was answering a chemical weapons attack with a chemical weapons attack. And an act of war against a sovereign nation. And a war crime.
The U.S. missile attack has received mostly bipartisan support in the U.S., as well as support from national leaders and cheerleading across much of the mainstream media. “America is back,” crowed Charles Krauthammer on Fox. On MSNBC, Brian Williams called the missile launches “beautiful” without apparent irony. Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer called it “the right thing to do“ and House Democrat Nancy Pelosi called it “a proportional response.” But both hedged on approving further military action without Congressional involvement (not that Democrats can have much influence). “I believe we have a restoration of American moral clarity,” claimed Scott Jennings, former aide to President Bush and Senator Mitch McConnell: “We now have a president who’s willing to act when it’s in our best interests and when it’s in the best interests of the world, to stop a genocidal mad man, which Bashar Al Assad certainly is.” Today, for Jennings, Assad is a “genocidal madman” in charge of Syria, but what was Syria in 1991 when the Syrian Air Force helped the first President Bush bomb Iraq? And what was Syria around 2006, when it helped the second President Bush outsource torture to Syrian facilities that were happy to do things Americans were too squeamish to do?
Within a week, U.S. policy on Syria shifted 180 degrees away from regime change, only to complete the full 360 to an act of war, all in reaction to an event that had no great military, political, or philosophical importance. The killing at Khan Sheikhoun was an atrocity, with accompanying emotional impact magnified by social media, but far from any sort of serious threat to U.S. national security (despite President Trump’s claim to the contrary). Phyllis Bennis on Democracy NOW! explored the oddness of the moment: “…now, suddenly, because of Trump’s emotional reaction to the deaths of these particular children….—the hypocrisy, the selective outrage, that this group of children somehow sparks the outrage that didn’t exist when children were slaughtered under U.S. bombs in Mosul, when children were killed trying to make the crossing with their parents to a United States that would not accept them, that was slamming a door in their face, and drowning on the beach as a result. You know, this is not about a strategy. This is about a lashing out. It may be tied to concerns about all the political ways that the Trump administration is losing support. That’s certainly part of it.”
The Tomahawk attack is lethal political kabuki. Did anything really happen? There were media shows of rockets flying. The U.S. warned the Russians who warned the Syrians so the missiles hit an almost abandoned airfield. How does that send a message of anything but wink-wink, non-nod to anyone? It gets a few people in Congress wound up, but the majority hasn’t cared since 2002 when they voted to give the president effectively unlimited war power. The four-minute missile attack was good for days if not weeks of empty media coverage, overwhelming the rest of the news.
The Syria strike took attention away from the Senate changing its rules to elect Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch with 54 votes (the fewest since Clarence Thomas, thanks only to 3 Democrats). And Syria also distracted attention from the Republican achievement of electing perhaps the first confirmed plagiarist to the Supreme Court. Politico reported on Gorsuch’s academic plagiarism, where he borrowed heavily from several authors for his 2006 book and an academic article—without citing their work. In one chapter in “The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia,” Gorsuch lifted entire passages from an Indiana Law Journal article, with minor additions and changes to verb tenses. Syracuse University writing professor Rebecca Moore Howard told Politico, “Each of the individual incidents constitutes a violation of academic ethics. I’ve never seen a college plagiarism code that this would not be in violation of.”
That’s probably not the worst to be said about Gorsuch, whose judicial record is as heartless and merciless as a chemical weapons attack. It’s not a stretch to imagine that, over 20 or more years on the bench, Gorsuch will be responsible for killing more “helpless men, women and children” (in President Trump’s phrase) with a pen than Bashar al Assad can gas. And Gorsuch-style judicial killing is less obvious, messy, or public. Mission accomplished?