On April 9, 2017, less than three full months into his term, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian government airstrip in response to the harrowing April 4 chemical weapons attack that killed over 70 people in Khan Shaykhun. Besides destroying a few aircrafts in an attempt to reduce “the Syrian government’s ability to deliver chemical weapons,” according to The New York Times the strike was, by American military standards and prowess, weak. It was also quintessentially Trumpian: limp, ineffectual, hyperbolic, and hollow.
Even symbolically, the strike failed. If Trump had intended to show Bashar al-Assad that chemical weapons use was indeed a “red line,” what he delivered instead amounted to even less than a slap on the wrist. Trump’s performative attack on a Syrian airstrip showed Assad and his allies that he is someone less interested in principled, strategic action and more in meaningless displays of power. The attack on Assad’s airstrip was less about Assad, or the Syrian people, than it was about Trump, in other words.
Since that strike last April, Assad has continued employing chemical weapons in his bid to crush not only his opposition, but any future possible threats to his power. Open source research agency Bellingcat, in partnership with Syrians for Truth and Justice, has documented four chemical weapons attacks in 2018 alone – the most recent and fatal one being in Douma on April 7. The attack in Douma killed fifty-five people and injured 850. Much like this time last year, Trump honed in on this attack as uniquely irredeemable, and quickly advocated for and threatened retaliation against Assad and Russia on Twitter.
Since April 7, there has been a significant uptick in interest in Syria, according to Google Trends tracker. This interest, which is fueled not only by Trump but the media at large, has featured the same obfuscation, elision, confusion, and conflation it did after the strike last year. With Trump’s recent attack against Assad on April 13, it is worth pausing at this moment of uncertainty to remember a few things.
First, the United States has been actively and consistently bombing Syria since 2015. The urbicide and indiscriminate loss of civilian life America has overseen, as the leader of the coalition in Syria, is likely understated, and the consequences will be felt for decades to come. Furthermore, under Trump, American airstrikes on and civilian losses in Syria have substantially increased. To only protest a strike that specifically targets Assad, a brutal dictator, and not the larger bombing campaign America has been leading as well as Assad’s other crimes is to dangerously reinforce Assad’s power. It is, in other words, to be a statist that ignores the years of violence and oppression these states have wrought.
Second, Syria is not Iraq or Libya. To compare the Syrian war to the invasion of Iraq and the intervention in Libya, as some have done, is not only intellectually lazy and uninspired, it is dangerous. The impulse to essentialize the intricate local and global dynamics of the Syrian war says more about the American view of the Middle East as monolithic and lacking in complexity. As columnist George Packer said in the New Yorker back in 2013 — the first time America entertained intervening in Syria — “people resort to analogies so they don’t have to think about the matter at hand.” If it is stability those who make lazy comparisons are after, the only question to ask is: whose stability? Is it the stability of the half a million dead? The millions displaced, the thousands disappeared?
Third, in the global theater that has become Syria, the Syrian people have all but disappeared. In the past seven years, the Syrians are the ones who have endured Assad, Russian, Iranian, American and Turkish bombs and attacks. Everyone has gotten a piece of the Syrian people — whether it is in Syria itself or on the shores Syrians have landed on — and the world has largely stood by and casually watched. Even in his pseudo principled stance against chemical weapons, Trump has yet to directly invoke the name of the Syrian people themselves.
Both last year and now, U.S. attacks on Assad are not about Syrians, and those who cheer them on know that.