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Syrian missile strikes and the new cold war

 

Donald Trump’s recent military strike on Syria, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, is based on assumption and lacks any sort of direction. The injustice done in the Syrian neighborhood of Kahn Sheikhoun, the site of the recent chemical gas attack used as justification for the missile strikes, must be rectified. But an attack of such magnitude typically undergoes investigation by an international authority before any unilateral military action is taken by an outside actor. The brash and aimless attack by the US, taken without any fact-finding mission, only serves to make matters worse for the Syrian people, as well as US-Russian relations as a whole. Not only must the US think carefully before perusing further military action, it must scale back the military engagements they’re already involved in for the sake of maintaining international order.

We’ve seen this story before. In 2013, after a gas attack in Ghouta supposedly launched by the Assad regime, the Obama administration was one step away from taking aggressive military action against the Syrian government. If Obama pursued such an attack, the United States would now be embroiled in another Middle East quagmire based on false pretenses. In his often-quoted article on the 2013 Ghouta attack, Seymour Hersh explains why Obama didn’t undertake military action:

Obama’s change of mind had its origins at Porton Down, the defence laboratory in Wiltshire. British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal…As a consequence the American officers delivered a last-minute caution to the president, which, in their view, eventually led to his cancelling the attack.

Unlike Trump, Obama waited for the evidence surrounding the attack to become known. This is substantiated in Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic published toward the end of Obama’s presidency. Goldberg writes that Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper

…[made] clear that the intelligence on Syria’s use of sarin gas, while robust, was not a “slam dunk.” He chose the term carefully. Clapper, the chief of an intelligence community traumatized by its failures in the run-up to the Iraq War, was not going to overpromise, in the manner of the onetime CIA director George Tenet, who famously guaranteed George W. Bush a “slam dunk” in Iraq.

If Trump had waited for an investigation to conclude, we could find that the accusations currently being made regarding the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons are more smoke than fire. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it “was not clear whether the attacks were carried out by Syrian or Russian forces”. The Russian story, that conventional bombs had struck a rebel held bunker containing chemical weapons, is conceivable.

We know that the Assad government is not the only actor in the Syrian civil war to possess chemical weapons. Rebel groups, after capturing chemical facilities owned by the Assad government, frequently take chemical weapons for their own use. The UN reported that sarin filled containers were “seized by the armed forces of the Syrian Arab Republic in August 2013 in an area reportedly under the control of armed opposition groups”. Of those arrested for holding the chemicals, five were released after a short detention. In November of 2014, it was reported by the Syrian envoy to the UN that rebel groups had stolen 200 tons of chlorine gas from a government chemical factory. In April of 2016, an Islamist rebel group admitted to using chlorine gas against Kurdish militias in Aleppo.

However, rebels have allegedly been developing chemical weapons themselves, rather than simply stealing them from the government. Hersh writes:

The American and British intelligence communities had been aware since the spring of 2013 that some rebel units in Syria were developing chemical weapons. On 20 June analysts for the US Defense Intelligence Agency issued a highly classified five-page “talking points” briefing…which stated that al-Nusra maintained a sarin production cell: its programme, the paper said, was “the most advanced sarin plot since al-Qaida’s pre-9/11 effort”.

Hersh goes on to explains how the US had used Turkey to establish a back-channel into Syria for funneling weapons from Libya to Syrian rebel groups. In 2013, the CIA ended their involvement in the weapons transfer, but the channel remained open: “The United States was no longer in control of what the Turks were relaying to the jihadists…” Apparently, soon after the US dropped out, it was discovered that Turkey was giving rebels not only guns and ammunition, but chemical weapons training: “In spring 2013 US intelligence learned that the Turkish government…was working directly with al-Nusra and its allies to develop a chemical warfare capability.”

With all of this in mind, the possibility that Syrian rebels were harboring chemical weapons in Kahn Sheikhoun sounds, at the very least, plausible. Former CIA officer Philip Giraldi is correct in saying “…it might turn out that Assad… actually did this. But let’s wait to see, before we start a war, what the actual evidence is and what evidence the US government has”.

The missile strikes in Syria are part of a recent larger pattern of alarming militarization. The Trump administration has ordered 70 airstrikes on Yemen in March alone, over twice as many as those launched over the entire course of 2016. On March 22nd of this year, US coalition airstrikes bombed a school near Raqqa killing 33 displaced civilians. On March 24th, US drone strikes attacked an Aleppo mosque, killing at least 47 civilians, the same day it was reported that a series of US airstrikes killed as many as 200 civilians in Mosul, which the New York Times reports “would rank among the highest civilian death tolls in an American air mission since the United States went to war in Iraq in 2003”. As with the Syrian missile strikes, these attacks only serve to exacerbate conflicts rather than resolve them.

This uptick in militarism isn’t confined to the Middle East. One of the most distressing examples comes from Eastern Europe, where US and NATO forces have been steadily increasing their presence on and around the Russian border, which Moscow calls “truly aggressive”. The thousands of American and NATO personnel now present in Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland has been described as “the largest build-up of Western troops neighbouring Moscow’s sphere of influence since the Cold War.” The Kremlin released a statement saying that Russia will do “what it has to do. It has every sovereign right to take necessary measures throughout the territory of the Russian Federation”.

This is, to say the least, quite alarming, and unfortunately ties into Trump’s airstrikes on Syria. The US and Russia are now militarily engaged in opposite sides of the Syrian civil war; Political Science Professor Gregory Hall says that “this is a situation where US and Russia could actually engage in direct armed confrontation”. Such confrontation could naturally spill over from Syria into Eastern Europe unless relations between the two nuclear nations begin to warm.

Unfortunately, this is not the path we’re on at the current moment. Dmitri Peskov, a spokesman for Vladimir Putin, called the Syrian missile strikes a “significant blow” to US-Russian relations. Dmitri Medvedev described the relations as “completely ruined”, and stated that Russia and the United States are now “on the verge of a military clash”. This is more than just rhetoric; after the missile strikes, Russia suspended an air coordination pact that was “meant to prevent accidental encounters between [Russian and American] militaries”.

The Democrats have wasted their political capital disseminating overemphasized claims of Russian “hacking” of the United States Presidential election. As with Donald Trump (who once called warm relations between the two nations as “a good thing, not a bad thing”), they have completely reversed their stance on Russia. In 2012, the Democrats laughed along with Barack Obama when Mitt Romney labeled Russia as America’s “number one political foe”. Now, the tune has changed, with Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and other Democrats not only continuing to pursue the Russian hacking story, but expressing support for the missile strikes despite the powder keg that such a spark may ignite. The formation of a New Cold War between the United States and Russia is now a bipartisan issue.

On the campaign trail, Trump said of ISIS controlled area in the Middle East: “I’d blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left”. If Trump and the US military continue on the path that they’re on, this course of action may turn out to be accurate, but not exclusively for Iraq and Syria. Short-sighted military adventures always run the risk of being the first domino to fall in a large chain of disasters, the end result being dangerous isolationism and humanitarian tragedy. If Trump’s missile attack on Syria and increased aggression across the Middle East is a sign of things to come, the world must hope that the US-Russian relationship doesn’t totally dissolve; the threat of direct military conflict between NATO and Russia is one misstep away, and the Trump Administration currently holds the title as the world’s leading trafficker in missteps.

Photo: Garry Knight/Creative Commons

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Patrick Carr

Patrick Carr is a freelance writer and researcher who specializes in economics, current events, international relations, and environment issues. He has worked as a staff member on a number of independent publications, and his work has appeared on DailyKos and Counterpunch.